On Saturday, I watched the landing of Atlantis, marking the completion of STS-125, with a small bit of sadness. I found that my sadness was shared by a number of NASA colleagues and space enthusiasts on Twitter. A point was raised during the post-landing briefing that STS-125 completes the final mission for shuttle to anything but the ISS. Ed Weiler, the Associate Administrator at NASA Headquarters for the Science Mission Directorate, was questioning all the glum faces: after all, the Hubble Space Telescope achieved a new lease on life as a result of the mission.
In part, he is right; in part, he missed the point.
It is true that Hubble is a better observatory now than it was before the repair, and perhaps better than it ever was before. There is no denying that, and it is this point that Weiler was making during the press conference. After all, he has been involved with Hubble since the early days, and was viewing the situation from the perspective of Hubble.
The rest of us were viewing the situation from the perspective of the shuttle.
The shuttle is in its 29th year of operation. We all know that the remaining flights on the manifest are to complete the assembly of the International Space Station. Therefore, in a way, the completion of STS-125 marks the end of an era of discovery and a transition coming soon to a new phase: the ending stage of the life cycle.
I’d like to be careful here. We do have seven flights remaining on the manifest (eight if the Alpha Mass Spectrometer mission is funded by Congress in accordance with guidance from the White House). Each of those missions is just as important as those that preceded them. Yet when the last mission is flown – in fact before – what do we do?
What we should do is take a page from the five elements of Feng Shui. The fifth and final element of Feng Shui, water, has to do with regeneration; it is the ending of one phase and the starting of the next. It is a time for reflection, to capture lessons learned, to celebrate, and to prepare for the transition to something new. STS-125 reminds us that the end of the shuttle is near and that now is the time to prepare our transitions to something new and better. Sure, there can be sadness with the ending of something. That is quite natural. Yet with the ending is the opportunity to tackle new challenges. For many of us in human space flight, that “something new” is Constellation.
This topic actually brings me to a related topic concerning my team. Yesterday, my management informed me that they are near naming the person who will take over my team for me. The plan all along has been for me to lead the team through the strategic development phase, then for me to hand over to another person to lead the competitive procurement stage. In one sense, that conversation marks for me a transition point, similar to what STS-125 does for shuttle, indicating my time as leader of my team will be ending. Yet like the shuttle, my team and I have a heck of a lot of work to do before we achieve the end. Now is the time to press to completion and to remember to reflect, celebrate, and get ready for the next new challenge when the time arrives.