The Space Shuttle Program’s Life and Times
The Space Shuttle program began in 1972. The first Space Shuttle flight occurred on April 12, 1981. The program ended on with the last flight on July 21, 2011. The program achieved many firsts. Some of what the Space Shuttle achieved has not been replicated since the program ended. The program had triumphs and tragedies. The program cost $196 billion in 2011 dollars.
In 1951 rocket engineer and designer Werner von Braun and artist Chesley Bonestell envisioned a space station, a space telescope, and reusable space launch vehicle.[i] This was six years before humans sent the first satellite, Sputnik I, into space.
In 1972 with the Apollo Program winding down the United States decided its next human spaceflight program would be a reusable spacecraft. The program commonly became known at the Space Shuttle Program. The first Space Shuttle Orbiter (OV-101) was scheduled to be rolled out in 1976. The United States was celebrating its bicentennial and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) intended to name it the Constitution. Fans of the television show “Star Trek” had a letter writing campaign to have OV-101 named Enterprise. Public relations savvy NASA named OV-101 Enterprise. The rollout ceremony in 1976 included the Star Trek theme music, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and six of the show’s cast members.[ii] Some had the mistaken belief the entire space shuttle fleet would be named Enterprise. The 1983 made for television movie “Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land” enshrined this error for posterity.[iii]
The program was beset by delays. The Enterprise was mated to the fuselage of a modified Boeing 747 and tests began in February 1977. The Enterprise made its first independent flight on August 12. The 747 released the Enterprise and astronauts Fred W. Haise and C. Gordon Fullerton glided the Enterprise to a landing at Edwards Air Force Base California. The Enterprise made four more independent test flights in October. Astronauts Joe H. Engle and Richard C. Truly also made approach and landings in the Enterprise.[iv]
NASA mated the Enterprise to an external tank and mated solid rocket boosters to the external tank. NASA carried out additional tests. NASA decided because of design changes not to send the Enterprise into space. NASA put it in long term storage at Edwards AFB on September 6, 1981.[v]
In March 1979 NASA flew the Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia, attached to a Boeing 747, from California to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On the way it stopped at Kelly AFB, Texas. Initially they weren’t going to open Kelly AFB to the public for the landing. Public interest was so great they opened the base to the public for the landing. Before landing at Kelly AFB, the Boeing 747 made a low-level pass over the runway.
[i] Pioneering the Space Frontier: The Report of the National Commission on Space, 1986.
[ii] Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Lt. Commander Scott (James Doohan), Mr. Sulu (George Takei), Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nicols), and Ensign Chekov (Walter Koenig).
[iii] Sir John Hackett’s 1982 novel The Third World War: The Untold Story also made this error.
[iv] NASA, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/40-years-ago-space-shuttle-enterprise-rolls-to-the-pad, last accessed 6/30/19.
[v] NASA, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/40-years-ago-space-shuttle-enterprise-rolls-to-the-pad, last accessed 6/30/19.
On April 12, 1981 NASA launched the Space Transportation System Columbia into space, flown by astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen. It was the largest object launched into space. The space shuttle’s heat tiles were problematic. Some tiles came off during the launch into space. NASA didn’t consider the missing tiles a problem and Columbia completed its mission and became the first space craft to return from space and glide to a landing.
On November 4 the Columbia was supposed to be the first spacecraft to travel into space twice. NASA scrubbed the launch at T-31 seconds. The reasons for scrubbing the launch caused some concern since it seemed to indicate the orbiters may require more post flight maintenance than expected. On November 12 the Columbia went into space with astronauts Joe J. Engle and Richard H. Truly on board. A company used the T-31 launch scrub as a comical way to sell their product.
For the first missions the Columbia had ejection seats for the pilots. The ejection seats were removed for flights where Columbia would have mission specialists on board. NASA felt it would be wrong to have the pilots eject and leave the rest of the crew to their doom. On mission STS-5 the Challenger flew the first Mission Specialists, Joseph P. Allen and William B. Lenoir, into space. With a crew of 4 it was the most people sent into space in a single spacecraft. On this mission the Columbia launched two satellites. After this mission Columbia underwent extensive modification.
The Space Shuttle Challenger’s maiden flights began on April 4, 1983. It was mission STS-6. This was the first shuttle mission that had a spacewalk. Challenger was also used on mission STS-7. Astronaut Dr. Sally Ride became the first American woman in space on June 18, 1983.[i] STS-7 was also the first mission where a spacecraft flew 5 astronauts into space. STS-8 was another Challenger mission. It was the first night launch of a space shuttle. On this mission Guy Bluford became the first African-American in space.[ii] Columbia returned to space on November 28, STS-9. It carried the Spacelab in its cargo bay.
After STS-9 NASA changed their numbering convention. The first number would be the fiscal year of the scheduled launch. The second number indicated the launch site, a letter after the dash indicated the alphabetic sequence of the flight within the fiscal year.[iii]
On the next shuttle flight, STS-41-B, Bruce McCandless made the first untethered spacewalk in history.[iv] This made for some spectacular photographs. STS-41-B was the first time a space shuttle, Challenger, landed at the Kennedy Space Center. On STS-41-C the Challenger crew retrieved, repaired, and redeployed the malfunctioning Solar Maximum Mission spacecraft.[v]
President Ronald Reagan announced the Teacher in Space Project (TISP) on August 27, 1984. This was part of a larger effort to send people into space who weren’t part of a NASA Astronaut Group. It was felt artists, journalists, and other non-astronauts could better explain to the public the space experience.[vi]
The Discovery began its first mission, STS-41-D, on August 30, 1984. On Discovery’s next mission, STS-41-G, it launched two satellites and retrieved two satellites launched on mission STS-41-B that didn’t achieve geosynchronous orbit. [vii]
Mission STS-51-C was the first mission to carry a Department of Defense (DoD) payload. [viii] On Mission STS-51-D the Discovery had Republican Senator Jake Garn on board. He was the first astronaut that wasn’t part of a NASA Astronaut Group. He was the head of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that dealt with NASA. Mission STS-51-G had Captain Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud[ix], another astronaut that wasn’t part of a NASA Astronaut Group, on board. He was the first Saudi Arabian astronaut and became a national hero. In 2018 he became the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Saudi Space Agency. Mission STS-51-J was the second mission to carry a DoD payload.[x]
[i] Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space and the only woman ever to make a solo flight into space. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xRdvBpTS-U&feature=youtu.be, last accessed, 7/4/19.
[ii] NASA, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/sts-8-the-first-shuttle-night-launch-landing, last accessed 7/4/19.
[iii] Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.
[iv] NASA, https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/astronaut-bruce-mccandless-on-first-ever-untethered-spacewalk, last accessed 7/4/19.
[v] Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.
[vi] The Simpsons episode, “Deep Space Homer” spoofed this concept.
[vii] Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.
[viii] Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.
[ix] That was his rank in the Royal Saudi Air Force at the time. Salman bin Abdulaziz achieved the rank of colonelHe
[x] Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.
The Challenger Accident
NASA selected social-studies teacher Christa McAuliffe to be the teacher in space. She would be on mission STS-51-L. Mission STS-51-L, as with many shuttle missions, was beset with many delays. NASA scrubbed the scheduled January 27, 1986 launch and that evening CBS News Anchor Dan Rather began the story about the scrubbed launch by calling it “high tech and low comedy”. The Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off at 1138 on January 28, 1986. It was the 25th space shuttle launch. The Challenger exploded 73.137 seconds after launch. [i] The accident killed the seven astronauts onboard.
All this happened on live television. Many students were watching in their classrooms when excitement turned to tragedy. That night on the Johnny Carson show Joan Rivers, the guest host, announced she was going to skip the opening monologue because telling jokes seemed inappropriate.
A Presidential Commission investigated the accident. William P. Rogers chaired the Commission. Astronaut Neil Armstrong was the Vice-Chair. The Commission also included astronaut Dr. Sally K. Ride and Brigadier General Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager.[ii]
There were rumors the astronauts who weren’t part of a NASA Astronaut Group weren’t qualified for a space mission. The TISP program was eventually canceled and there was no further attempt to put a teacher on a space shuttle mission.
NASA didn’t launch another space shuttle until September 29, 1988. NASA reverted to its original numbering convention for missions.[iii] On this mission, STS-26, the crew were all space veterans. NASA hadn’t sent up an all veteran crew since the Apollo 11 mission. It was the first mission with mission specialists where the entire crew wore pressure suits for launch and landing.[iv] While space suits wouldn’t have saved the Challenger astronauts decompression in space killed three cosmonauts in 1971.[v]
[i] Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.
[ii] Brigadier General Yeager was little known outside of aerospace circles until Tom Wolfe’s book, and the 1983 movie “The Right Stuff”.
[iii] The missions weren’t carried out in numerical order. For example Mission STS-28 was the 30th Space Shuttle mission.
[iv] NASA Fandom, STS-26, https://nasa.fandom.com/wiki/STS-26, last accessed 7/26/2019.
[v] Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, & Vladislav Volkov died in their Soyuz 11 capsule on June 30, 1971. These were the last cosmonauts to die in space. The only other cosmonaut to die in space was Vladimir Komarov on April 24, 1967.
On February 3, 1995 Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off on mission STS-63. It was the first mission for the Shuttle-Mir Program. The Discovery rendezvoused with the Russian Mir space station and flew around it. This was the first space shuttle mission that had a woman, Eileen Collins, as a pilot. Russian cosmonaut Vladimir G. Titov was also flew on this mission. Mission STS-71 launched on June 27, 1993. This was the 100th U.S. human spaceflight mission. The Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the Mir space station.[i] The Atlantis-Mir combination was easy to spot from Earth with the naked eye. It appeared like a star floating across the sky. The last Shuttle-Mir mission was STS-91 that lasted from June 2 – 12, 1998.[ii]
Democratic Senator John Glenn thought NASA should send an elderly astronaut into space to see the biological effects it space would have on older people. Senator Glenn believed he should be the test subject. NASA and the National Institute of Aging decided to use Senator Glenn as a test subject. The Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off on Mission STS-95 on October 29, 1998 with Senator Glenn as one of the mission specialists. This made him the oldest person to fly in space. It had been over 36 years since Senator Glen flew in the Friendship 7 as the first American to orbit the Earth. This amount of time between space flights by an astronaut was another record. NASA discontinued the tests after Senator Glenn’s flight.
[i] NASA.gov, https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4225/sts71/sts-71.htm, last accessed 7/26/2019.
[ii] NASA.gov, https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4225/sts91/sts-91.htm, last accessed 7/26/2019.
The Columbia Disaster and The End of the Program
On January 16, 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia went into space for the 28th time. It was mission STS-107. It had a crew of 7 that included mission specialist Kalpana Chawla who was born in India and became a naturalized American citizen. She was the first Indian born woman in space.[i] Israeli Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon was also on the mission. He was the first Israeli astronaut. The pride of three nations spent 16 days in space. No one realized the mission was doomed.
During takeoff a piece of foam came off a “bipod ramp and struck Columbia’s left wing. This strike made a hole in the left wing. This caused Columbia to burnup on reentry killing everyone on board.[ii] Investigators took parts from the Space Shuttle Enterprise, which was a museum piece, to find the cause of the Columbia disaster. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board released its final report on August 26, 2003.[iii]
The next Shuttle Mission, STS-114, was July 26, 2005. The external tank had a new design to limit foam loss. The new design had more foam loss then expected so the next shuttle mission, STS-121, didn’t liftoff until July 4, 2006. [iv] Most of the subsequent missions were to finish building the International Space Station. On July 21, 2011 at 5:57 a.m. the space shuttle Atlantis landed.[v] This ended mission STS-135, the Space Shuttle program, and NASA’s ability to launch humans into space. Since then NASA astronauts had to rely on Russian rockets to take them into space.
[i] Space.com, https://www.space.com/17056-kalpana-chawla-biography.html, last accessed 7/27/2019.
[ii] Space.com, Columbia Disaster: What Happened, What NASA Learned, https://www.space.com/19436-columbia-disaster.html, last accessed 7/30/2019.
[iii] Report of Columbia Accident Investigation Board, Volume I, https://www.nasa.gov/columbia/home/CAIB_Vol1.html, last accessed 7/30/2019.
[iv] Space.com, Columbia Disaster: What Happened, What NASA Learned, https://www.space.com/19436-columbia-disaster.html, last accessed 7/30/2019.
[v] NASA.gov, STS-135: The Final Voyage, https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/sts135/launch/sts-135_mission-overview.html, last accessed 8/5/2019.
Lost Shuttle Astronauts
Michael J. Smith
Rick D. Husband
William C. McCool
Michael P. Anderson
David M. Brown
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Robert Sacchi