Beaufort News

Space shuttle Atlantis gears up for final mission

When the space shuttle program comes to an end after today's Atlantis mission is over, former Citadel cadet Randy Bresnik can boast he was among the lucky few.

The Marine colonel flew on Atlantis' November 2009 flight, where he walked in space 220 miles above the planet.

"The sunrises and sunsets, they never got old," Bresnik, 44, said Thursday from Florida where he'll help strap in the last Atlantis crew today.

He described daybreak in the heavens as a tiny glimmer that went from a golden dot, to an explosion of brightness shooting across the planet.

Even better was that Bresnik saw the sunrise effect about every 45 minutes -- a phenomenon resulting from the speed the shuttle was reaching in its orbits across the globe.

"The light would just roll across the Earth," said Bresnik, Citadel Class of 1989.

South Carolina boasts a strong connection to the shuttle program. At least six NASA shuttle astronauts have state ties, ranging from Ronald E. McNair of Lake City, who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion, to current NASA administrator Charles Bolden of Columbia, pilot of the mission that launched the Hubble Space Telescope. Both are black and were born and raised in segregation.

Beyond providing astronauts, though, there's bad news on the horizon as the state is losing one of its chosen paths to the skies.

For three decades, experiments run by South Carolina researchers had ready shuttle access beyond Earth's gravity. They include about 30 programs run by the University of South Carolina and 35 more by Clemson University. Even tiny Claflin University was in the mix, with four of its projects sent into orbit.

But with no more NASA manned flights planned anytime soon, university work faces a questionable future, especially since profit-motivated commercial flights are expected to become dominant.

"At the moment, we don't have the connections to the commercial ventures," said Mitchell Colgan, director of the South Carolina Space Grant Consortium, which oversees the NASA-bound experiment program in the state. He also is chairman of the College of Charleston Geology Department.

States out West, including Arizona and California, have the geographic advantage to the commercial sector, he said, since they are near where much of the private sector space venture is rooted.

"Commercial ventures don't have the requirements of outreach like the federal programs did," Colgan added.

Most of the state's experiments were specialty focused, such as a USC study on muscle degeneration in micro-gravity, or Clemson's work on radiation-induced bone loss.

Even with the loss of space research, those who have taken part in previous shuttle work say the experience will stay with them forever. College of Charleston professor Cassandra Runyon helped local high school teachers work with NASA to get their experiments on board one of the shuttles, stressing how crystals grow in micro gravity -- an important function in pharmaceutical and engineering research.

"Micro-gravity allows the crystals to grow larger and stronger," she said, explaining the Earthly application the students derived.

Another local beneficiary of the shuttle program were dozens of students and teachers who took part in the "Can Do Project." In that program, Carol Tempel, coordinator of math, sciences and technology for Charleston County schools, helped advance space education, including on one mission where participants communicated directly to the Endeavour shuttle, telling the astronauts where to photograph sites on Earth.

"It was real," she said of her experience. "It wasn't pretend."