Wings of exploration: reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the space shuttle
The morning of April 12, 1981, proved to be a history-making event. For many, that day stemmed careers, dreams and imaginations alike. On that inaugural launch day began 30 years of advances in spaceflight, technology, scientific research, and would eventually lead to a permanent presence of humanity in space, but not without tragedy. This is the story of the Space Shuttle.
It began as a humble idea for an ambitious new future of space exploration in the age of Apollo. A bright age of lunar and space exploration cut short by political motives, slashed budgetary constraints, and leadership changes, the mission to find America’s next venture into spaceflight after Apollo was well underway in the 1960s. This program developed under NASA’s Space Shuttle Task Group, stemming off decades of research, would ultimately become the Shuttle Transportation System.
Officially announced in 1972 by President Richard Nixon, the program would rise out of the 1950s vision for a reusable shuttle-like spacecraft. Utilizing lessons learned from aerodynamic lifting bodies, the X-15, and the canceled Dyna-Soar program, the design would go through significant changes throughout this initial phase. However one thing stood strong, the shuttle by nature would be a winged spacecraft capable of significant reuse.
Originally envisioned as a two stage, fully-reusable and fully-piloted system, the vehicle would be flown up to altitude, where the space shuttle itself would be released and launched into orbit, much like the system utilized by Virgin Galactic today. Ultimately big budget issues would keep this from happening, and the decision was made from 29 potential designs to utilize the system we know today. This system would be the very first of its kind in history. A reusable shuttle orbiter designed to launch to space like a rocket, re-enter, and land on a runway like a glider, assisted to orbit with an expendable external fuel tank, and reusable solid rocket boosters.
The orbiter would be capable of lofting a cargo of 50,000 pounds to low earth orbit inside its cargo bay while also carrying up to eight astronauts in its crew compartment. By design, parts of the STS system would also be reusable. During ascent, the SRBs would jettison from the external tank and, while falling back to Earth, deploy a parachute system for a soft water landing. The boosters would then be recovered at sea, allowing them to be refurbished, refueled, and ultimately reflown.
Crucial to the design of the orbiters, were unique systems such as their thermal protection system, comprised of newly-designed, state of the art, reusable tiles made of substances such as silica, and reinforced carbon carbon. This system was a significant departure from previous heat shield designs, which used heavy, ablative materials that were single use. Canada would also take part in the program, designing a robotic arm called “Canadarm” to deploy, maneuver and capture payloads on orbit.
With the final design selected, the contracts began to be awarded. North American Rockwell would build the orbiters, Morton Thiokol the SRBs, and Martin Marietta the external tank. NASA evaluated existing F-1 & J-2 engines used under the Saturn program, but ultimately decided those would be insufficient for the requirements of the shuttle. Instead, the agency issued a contract to develop the reusable RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engine to Rocketdyne.
In June of 1974, Rockwell began construction of OV-101, Enterprise. Named after the starship in the famed TV show “Star Trek,” Enterprise would serve as a design test vehicle, and did not include engines or a functional heat shield. Construction of the test article concluded in 1976 where the shuttle would be moved to Edwards Air Force Base for testing. Enterprise would be used to validate the functionality of the shuttle, including conducting approach and landing tests from atop a converted 747, vibration tests, and as a pathfinder for testing ground support infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Rockwell was also producing the first operational space shuttle, Columbia, at its manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California. Ultimately Rockwell would build six space shuttles consisting of the test article Enterprise, and operational shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Each was unique in their own design, with multiple small design changes occurring throughout production.
The first space shuttle flight
All the planning and testing after years of design and delays would finally come to fruition in the early morning hours of April 12, 1981. This would be the day the space shuttle would make not only its first orbital spaceflight, but also its first crewed spaceflight. In programs past, the first few launches were uncrewed, and were used to test the spacecraft systems prior to the eventual crewed flight. STS-1 is still unique to this day as the only time in history an American spacecraft carried a crew on its maiden voyage.
Columbia would be the first to make the trip to space, and with it, a uniquely white external tank. The white tank would later have the paint removed from the thermal foam in order to save weight following STS-2. The mission would be the first American spaceflight in six years, following the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The April 12 launch date was also the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s trip to space, however this is coincidental, as the original launch date was planned for two days before and delayed due to a technical problem.
The mission would be crewed by two astronauts, Commander John Young and Pilot Robert Crippen. Young, who at the time was one of NASA’s most experienced astronauts, was a veteran of multiple spaceflights, having joined NASA in 1962 as part of NASA Group 2. Young would fly on Gemini 3, the inaugural test flight of the Gemini program, as well as Gemini 10, Apollo 10, and serving as commander of Apollo 16 where he would walk on the moon. Young was serving as chief of the Astronaut Office at the time, and recommended himself to the mission.
Crippen was selected as an astronaut with NASA Group 7 following the cancellation of the U.S. Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. The flight would be his first into space, and he would become the first of his class to fly into space. Crippen had also served as CAPCOM for all three Skylab missions, as well as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
At 8 a.m. ET, Columbia lifted off the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A to start its 54.5 hour mission. The mission only carried a single payload, a Development Flight Instrumentation package, which contained various sensors and measuring devices to monitor and record the orbiters performance and stresses that were incurred over the course of the mission.
Ultimately, a few anomalies had occurred during the test flight, which were arguably expected as it was the most complex spacecraft ever built. Damage to the thermal protection system near the Reaction Control System thrusters was observed by a top secret KH-11 reconnaissance satellite during the mission, however it was determined he damage was not detrimental to a safe return.
The mission would be a complete success despite the issues, with the successful landing of the orbiter at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The flight completed and verified all 113 test objectives, resulting in the certification and overall space worthiness of the shuttle. Young would remark over the radio during landing, “This is the world’s greatest all electric flying machine. I’ll tell you that. That was super!”
The missions success would pave the way for the future. The system proven, it was now time to go to work. After some procedural changes to the launch and reentry plans, Columbia would fly the next 4 missions.
The space shuttle missions
Throughout the programs history, the Space Shuttle was the forefront of many milestones and discoveries in Low Earth Orbit. Most notably however, include the construction of the massive International Space Station, and the launching of history-making payloads such as the Hubble Space Telescope. Shuttle also played host to the release of many classified payloads that remain secret to this day.
Historical milestones conducted under the program included many firsts for American spaceflight as well, such as STS-7, the June 1983 flight of Challenger, in which astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. Challenger also would later take America’s first black astronaut, Guion Bluford, to orbit in August of the same year on STS-8. STS-63 in February of 1995 would see the first female pilot, when Eileen Collins flew Discovery to rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir. Collins would also later become the first female commander in American spaceflight history, when she commanded Columbia’s STS-93 in July of 1999.
In February of 1984, Challenger was launched as part of STS-41B. During this mission, astronaut Bruce McCandless would become the first human in history to perform an untethered spacewalk, demonstrating the Manned Maneuvering Unit at a distance from the shuttle.
Shuttle also allowed for significant research spacecraft to be launched, and even serviced on orbit long after launch. In April of 1990, Discovery launched with the Hubble Space Telescope on the STS-31 mission. Since its deployment, Hubble has revolutionized humankind’s understanding of the universe, taking images that to this day are among the most recognizable images in existence.
Since Hubble’s launch in 1990, shuttle also proved its on orbit servicing capabilities, with five separate servicing missions to repair and upgrade Hubble over the course of the program. Other satellites benefited from this capability as well, such as the STS-49 mission to repair the Intelsat VI-F3 satellite, which had been placed into an incorrect orbit during its launch two years prior. The mission saw the first three person spacewalk, and saw the successful return of the satellite to its intended orbit via a new second stage attached by the astronauts.
In 1993, a joint program was established between the US and Russia, in which Russian cosmonauts would fly aboard shuttle, and American astronauts would fly aboard Soyuz. This program would lead to a collaborative 11 mission joint space program, in which shuttle would dock to the Mir space station. With the first mission of the program being Discovery’s STS-60 in 1994 to test relays, The program saw the creation of the largest object ever constructed in space at that point in history, with the STS-63 docking of Discovery to Mir in February of 1995.
The Shuttle-Mir program ultimately served as “Phase One” of a three phase joint collaboration project, with “Phase Two” becoming the soon to be built ISS. Phase One tested equipment and techniques, and assisted development of the initial aspects of Phase Two. Supported by heavy lift rocket launches by Russia, and shuttle launches lifting modules and constructing the station on orbit, the ISS would come to exist, with the first shuttle crews docking in December of 1998. Construction of the football field sized scientific outpost would be completed in 2012, following the conclusion of the space shuttle program.
Through the ISS, humans have maintained a continuous uninterrupted presence in space since Oct. 31, 2000. Not only is this a feat of scientific ingenuity, resulting in countless discoveries and technological advancements, but also serves as a symbol of international cooperation. Without the space shuttle, the construction arguably could have never occurred, making the ISS the shuttles greatest contribution to humankind and spaceflight.
The shuttle program showed ambitious goals for spaceflight, with a planned utilization of multiple launch pads, and later follow-on shuttle designs. Each vehicle was designed and planned to have a lifespan of 100 launches, with an operational life of 10 years. It was expected that at the peak of the program, a shuttle would launch on a monthly basis, with a planned 150 flights in the first 10 years. At the conclusion of their 10 year life spans, it was even planned for a new shuttle to be designed to replace the system.
However, significant delays with the program, rising budget costs, and delays to the ISS would ultimately squash these ambitions, for a total of 133 successful missions, with two tragic failures also contributing to the program cutbacks. Production of follow-on orbiters would never occur, and while a second launch site to support Department of Defense payloads and polar orbits at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was constructed, and even fit tested using a fully stacked Enterprise, the plans were ultimately canceled.
An unprecedented tragedy
With the program firing on all cylinders, its success allowed for NASA to consider allowing non-astronauts to fly aboard shuttle. One such program was the Teacher in Space program. TISP would select a teacher to fly into space aboard a shuttle, as a means to honor teachers, inspire students, and increase interest in Science, technology, and spaceflight. After 11,000 applicants were screened, NASA selected Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire. McAuliffe was to teach two 15-minute lessons while on orbit to classrooms around the world. That flight would be STS-51L.
On the morning of January 26, 1986, televisions around the world and in classrooms across the nation tuned in for the launch of STS-51L. Locally in Florida, temperatures were well below normal ranges for the state, with launch weather predictions forecasting 27 degrees Fahrenheit at time of launch. Leading up to the launch, all appeared normal and went according to schedule. At 12:38 p.m. EST, astronauts Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B.
During the ascent phase of the launch, 73 seconds into flight, the vehicle experienced a catastrophic structural failure resulting in the loss of the vehicle, and all crew aboard. Millions throughout the world watched in disbelief as the crew lost their lives in an unthinkable tragedy. The disaster would prove to be a national tragedy, with 17 percent of the nation watching the launch of McAuliffe. President Ronald Reagan would address the nation and state, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
Following the disaster, an extensive search and recovery operation began for the remains of the shuttle, and her crew. Over the course of several months, divers were able to recover 15 short tons of debris, with 55% of Challenger, 5% of the crew cabin, and 65% of cargo were never retrieved.
As part of the investigation a Presidential Commission known as The Rogers Commission would be established. The Commission would ultimately find that the environmental conditions on launch day were far too cold, with SRBs only being certified for use above 39 degrees Fahrenheit. By launching outside the allowable temperature range, a failure of the O-ring seals located within an SRB segment joint occurred. The failure of these O-rings created a breach in the SRB joint, allowing pressurized burning gas to reach outside and impinge on the ET, and SRB attachment strut, leading to the separation of the right SRB. This separation created free movement which would strike the ET, causing structural failure and explosive breakup of the ET.
The Commission would also find that NASA’s safety culture was a significant contributor to the disaster, citing reliance on an unrealistically optimistic launch schedule that drove the launch forward in unpermissible conditions. The agency also violated its own safety rules, having known about the design flaw since 1977 and failing to address the problem properly.
In the aftermath of the disaster, NASA began a complete re-design of the SRBs, as well as significant changes to the Esther margins for launch conditions. Among the further reaching implications, the Air Force would ultimately cite the disaster as one of the reasons the planned shuttle launch site at Vandenberg AFB would be canceled before it could be used. The disaster would also lead to the prohibition of commercial satellites on shuttle, and a severe limitation to Department of Defense payloads flying aboard shuttle, opting for expendable rockets instead. Another shuttle, Endeavour, was also manufactured to replace the lost Challenger. It would be 32 months before a space shuttle would fly again.
A broken wing
From the return to flight following the Challenger disaster in 1988 with Discovery’s STS-26, shuttle missions became routine again, with mission success continuing for another 15 years of scientific progress. January of 2003 would see the launch of the next mission, featuring the oldest shuttle of the fleet performing a multitude of international science experiments within the SPACEHAB Double Research Module as part of Columbia’s STS-107.
The mission would launch at 11:39 a.m. EST, taking with it astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, into orbit. It was during this launch that cameras observed a piece of insulation foam fall from the “Bipod ramp” of the external tank, impacting the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing.
Over the course of just under 16 days, over 80 experiments would be conducted, before the mission was set to return to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003. Meanwhile, Several people within NASA had been making a push to get pictures of the impacted area of the wing. The crew themselves were not capable of performing the inspection, as they were without EVA equipment. The Department of Defense offered to use the cameras on their orbital spy satellites to investigate, however the offer was declined.
As the shuttle began a nominal reentry, abnormal readings began to appear within mission control. First the temperature sensors in the left wing had stopped communicating, followed shortly after by tire pressure readings. At 8:59:32 a.m. EST, CAPCOM called to Columbia to discuss the telemetry problems. Commander Rick Husband called back to mission control “Roger,” followed by a word cut off mid transmission. Columbia was now tracking over Texas.
Mission control made several attempts to get in touch with the orbiter with the now infamous words “Columbia Houston, UHF Comm check.” The requests went unanswered. Twelve minutes after last contact, Columbia should have been on final approach to land at KSC. A controller would soon receive a phone call, in which it was explained that television networks were showing video of the shuttle breaking apart in the skies over Texas. Later that day, NASA announced the loss of Columbia, and her crew.
For the next several months, people from all over the United States, civilians and government employees alike, joined forces to comb through the over 2,000 square miles of debris field searching for pieces of Columbia, and the remains of her crew. Ultimately, some 84,000 pieces would be recovered across East Texas and Western Louisiana, amounting to just under 40% of the fallen shuttle. Her crew was also found in the search. To this day it remains the largest ever organized ground search in history.
Meanwhile, the Columbia Accident investigation Board (CAIB) was formed to determine the cause of the cause of the accident. The board would determine the physical cause would be the impact of the foam into the leading edge of the left wing, creating a large pizza box-sized hole in the RCC of the left wing. During re-entry, the hot gasses would enter into this hole, melting internal structures, and ultimately led to the complete breakup of the vehicle.
Beyond the physical cause, the CAIB also found yet again NASA’s safety culture was a contributing factor, stating in the report that “Cultural traits and organizational practices detrimental to safety were allowed to develop” citing a “reliance on past success as a substitute for sound engineering practices” and “organizational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information” among problems found. This was mainly due to post disaster analysis revealing that the foam shed damage had occurred on prior flights as well, without catastrophic effect.
With this, it was the recommendation of the CAIB that the shuttle be replaced and retired as soon as possible, with the interim solution being the fixing of various safety problems, including a redesign of the root cause of the accident, the ET foam. As a result, The ET tank was redesigned to remove excess and unnecessary foam. Additional changes included more cameras at launch to monitor foam shed, as well as new procedures mandating the usage of cameras and the shuttle’s robotic arm to scan the underbelly for tile damage.
In July of 2005, 907 days after the disaster, the shuttle program would once again return to flight, with the launch and successful mission of Discovery on STS-114. For every shuttle mission hereafter, the shuttle would perform a “Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver” prior to docking with the ISS. This maneuver would see the shuttle perform a “backflip” maneuver, allowing the ISS to visually inspect the tiles on each shuttle following launch.
Following the Columbia disaster, in January of 2004 President George W. Bush announced the Shuttle program would see its retirement following the completion of construction of the ISS. In March of 2006, the contributing nations determined that an additional 16 missions would be required in order to complete the ISS, with one additional mission being approved for a final repair of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The next 22 missions would be the final flights of the program, a fate sealed by the finite number of required launches. Additional changes were made, with pre-launch processing being modified to allow for a shuttle on standby, to be ready to launch as a rescue crew. Designated “STS-3XX,” the shuttles were officially referred to as “Launch on Need” and were also known as “Launch on Demand” or “Contingency Shuttle Crew Support.”
In the event an on orbit mission crew would need to be rescued due to a damaged vehicle that was determined to be unable to successfully re-enter, the rescue shuttle, which would have flown the next STS mission under nominal mission success, would launch with a crew of 4 pulled and re-tasked from the next STS flight. The mission would launch within 40 days of its request, with the crew of the damaged shuttle taking refuge within the ISS.
Contingency plans also existed in the event of an abort to orbit, where the shuttle is neither able to reach the ISS, or return to earth. In the event of this, the ISS would possibly be able to perform a procedure called “Joint Underspeed Recovery,” in which the ISS would descend down to meet the shuttle.
Thankfully, no rescue mission would ever be needed, and the shuttle program would continue on towards its end without another major incident. The legacy of these un-flown rescue flights can be seen most notably during the STS-125 mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, in which both launch pads were occupied simultaneously by Atlantis & Endeavour, a sight rarely seen throughout the history of the program. During this mission should it have occurred, Endeavour would launch to rendezvous with Atlantis, where the crew would transfer to Endeavour via Extra Vehicular Activity.
In September of 2010, it was decided that shuttle Atlantis, which was prepared to serve as rescue for the planned final space shuttle mission, Endeavour’s STS-134, would be granted its own mission as one final hurrah for the program. Flying with a crew of four consisting of astronauts Christopher Ferguson, Douglas Hurley, Sandra Magnus, and Rex Walheim, the final flight took to the heavens destined for the ISS on July 8th, 2011.
The mission would last for just over 12 days, and would serve not just as a means to an end, but also as a goal for new beginnings. On the final day aboard the ISS, the crew of STS-135 presented a small American flag to the orbiting outpost, which had flown aboard shuttle Columbia during the first flight of the program in 1981, and again on this final mission. This flag would serve as the ultimate challenge for commercial spaceflight in the years to come, not to return to Earth until the next crewed launch from American soil returns to the ISS.
The ultimate game of capture the flag would finally come to fruition nine years later in 2020, when astronaut Douglas Hurley, who while among the STS-135 crew left the flag aboard the station, would return as Commander of the SpaceX Demo 2 Crew Dragon mission to retrieve the flag and return it to Earth.
The space shuttle legacy
With the announcement of the shuttles retirement in 2004, a new program was born, Constellation. Constellation would aim to create a cost effective means to orbit, the Moon, and Mars. The program would return to the Apollo days, using an expendable rocket to deliver a capsule to orbit and beyond. Constellation would utilize certain aspects of the shuttle program, with the Ares family of rockets.
The Constellation Program would utilize two rocket designs, the Ares I and the Ares V. Ares I consisted of a modified shuttle SRB, with an attached interstage, liquid fueled second stage, and Orion spacecraft with launch abort system. Ares V would see a massive core stage fuel tank, constructed similarly to the shuttle ET, powered by its own six RS-68 engines, an ablatively cooled cheaper alternative to the shuttles own RS-25. Later re-designs would switch to the core stage being powered by five RS-25s. The core stage would also be flanked by twin shuttle derived SRBs.
Constellation would see one single launch of the Ares-1X prototype, a full-up test of an SRB with a dummy second stage and payload on October 28, 2009. Following the test, Constellation would see its cancellation by President Barrack Obama in 2010. The program was ultimately plagued by being over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation. It was later estimated that it would have taken approximately $150 billion in order for Constellation to reach its planned objectives under its original schedules. Thus, in October of 2010, the Constellation program was canceled with the 2010 NASA Authorization Bill.
The space shuttle orbiter itself also spurred its own attempts for replacement, as NASA searched for a replacement to the impressive size and reusability of the orbiter. Programs such as the VentureStar and its X-33 small scale test vehicle touted re-usability and satellite launching capabilities for 1/10th the cost of the shuttle, while still having the same functionality. Ultimately its Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) design would result in many design and testing issues that would ultimately result in the programs cancellation.
Today, the shuttle program lives on as the basis for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket as part of the Artemis program to return to the Moon and beyond. SLS is much like Constellation’s Ares V rocket, only more refined and utilizing more legacy hardware. SLS utilizes a core stage consisting of liquid hydrogen and oxygen tanks, powered by 4 RS-25 SSMEs. The engines are leftovers from the shuttle program, with plans to re-start production of the engine for later flights. The core stage is also flanked by twin SRBs, which utilize an added 5th fuel segment in addition to the leftover shuttle era casings and components.
NASAs Artemis program also utilizes the Orion spacecraft developed under Constellation, which flew its first uncrewed test flight into LEO in 2014. The Orion Command Module (CM) is powered and propelled by the European Service Module (ESM). Propelling Orion and the ESM, is another legacy shuttle component, an Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ10-190 engine. The engines were originally used as part of the shuttle Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) and will fly for the first few Artemis missions, with the Artemis 1 engine having flown as part of 19 shuttle missions.
While it has been 10 years since the conclusion of the shuttle program, much of the program still lives on and serves a purpose. With leftover components being used for future endeavors in space exploration, today the shuttles themselves sit in museums across the country, serving as a means to inspire the next generations towards the stars. Memorials to those lost in the program can be found throughout the world, and the programs legacy also lives on in pop culture.
Despite its retirement a decade ago, the 30 years of the space shuttle program served as an inspiration to all, and as a major source for scientific research, and human progress. We owe all who made the shuttle and its accomplishments happen, our debt of gratitude.
Matt Haskell is a published aviation and spaceflight photographer and writer based in Merritt Island Florida. Born and raised outside Edwards Air Force Base and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, he moved to Florida’s Space Coast and began photographing and reporting spaceflight professionally full time in 2018.