The space shuttle had a great run through the years…we have learn much from traveling to space and I hope that we can continue exploration of this vast universe to further unravel it’s mysteries.
Pass it on,
The space shuttle programme drew to a close on Thursday as the wheels of Atlantis slowed to a stop at the Kennedy Space Centre. It is a moment for celebration and for sadness. There is real pain here: thousands of job losses and the disintegration of a unique team of individuals who together have made the programme what it is.
I’m here at Kennedy and while I waited for Atlantis to come home, I watched film footage from Nasa’s archive as it plays on a loop in the press building.
There are hundreds of epic scenes spanning the 30-year history of missions, but the shots that caught my eye were from 1977. They show the space shuttle Enterprise being driven through an ordinary American town on a flatbed lorry. Crowds line the streets, there’s a kid on a BMX bike, a police officer sporting pork chop sideburns. Hell, there’s even a man wearing flares. While the world was still struggling to get to grips with the idea that the 70s were finally coming to an end, here was Nasa serving up the future on the back of a truck.
Enterprise was on its way to the Dryden Flight Research Center. Later it would be mounted onto a jumbo jet and launched into the skies over Edwards Air Force Base to find out whether this stunted, snub-nosed, unpowered vehicle could glide safely and touch down on a runway like a conventional aircraft.
Enterprise was not destined for space. This was its mission: to determine if a vehicle that flies like a safe with its door open can be piloted safely to Earth. It was a step towards the dream of a reusable spacecraft.
Just four years later in 1981, Columbia was launched – effectively an all up test of the most complicated machine the world had ever seen. The shuttle, mounted on an external fuel tank containing hundreds of thousands of gallons of cryogenically stored liquid hydrogen and oxygen, strapped to solid rocket boosters – became known as “the stack”. Fully fuelled it had the explosive capacity of a small nuclear weapon.
It was a design that many people would later come to regard as flawed. Unlike its predecessors it relied upon solid rocket boosters to get to orbit and the vehicle was mounted on the side of the launcher rather than on top. A failure in a solid rocket booster would claim the lives of the Challenger STS 51L crew in 1986 just 73 seconds into flight. And in 2003 a failure in the orbiter’s heat shield, damaged by debris falling from the external tank onto the shuttle as it launched, would kill the crew of Columbia STS 107 during re-entry, 16 minutes from home.
When the shuttle was conceived, the list of engineering requirements was formidable: everybody wanted everything. They asked for a vehicle with a payload bay big enough to accommodate satellites and space station modules, one with the ability to launch and return to a chosen landing site after just one orbit, a vehicle that could be steered while travelling at hypersonic velocities in the upper atmosphere, but one that could also glide unpowered below the speed of sound and return to a runway much like a conventional aircraft.
They wanted all of that and they wanted it to be reusable. That Nasa was capable of delivering a solution which met that outrageous catalogue of demands, and at a time in history when digital watches were still cool, is little short of miraculous. But the design was indeed flawed.
The accidents are burned into the memories of all who worked in the space shuttle programme and Nasa has learned from its mistakes. The shuttle was arguably safer towards the end of the programme than at any other time in its operation. Safer but not safe.
It is not accidents and risk that define the shuttle workforce or the shuttle programme, however. It would be a scandal if, after 30 years of exploration and 135 missions, the legacy of the shuttle were boiled down to the tragedies of Columbia and Challenger. The space shuttle is, and always was, much more than that.
The programme spanned three decades. During that time human space exploration went from being a surrogate battlefield for nuclear war to an endeavour characterised by international cooperation. It brought us state-of-the-art engineering, delivered the Hubble Space Telescope, furthered the United States’ understanding of long-term human spaceflight through the Shuttle-Mir programme, and consolidated that knowledge through the assembly of the International Space Station.
Its programme of exploration changed the way we saw the universe but, more importantly, it changed the way we saw ourselves. The legacy of the space shuttle is to be found in the lives that it touched, the people it inspired and the generation that it taught to dream.
Kevin Fong’s TV documentary Space Shuttle: The Final Mission airs on BBC Two on Sunday at 9pm
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