Boeing: Historical Snapshot: Space Shuttle Orbiter


Space Shuttle Orbiter

Historical Snapshot

The Space Shuttle Orbiter became a Boeing program in 1996, when the company purchased Rockwell International’s aerospace and defense assets. The Orbiter—the world’s first reusable spacecraft—supported humanity’s most challenging engineering project, the International Space Station (ISS). It launched, recovered and repaired satellites and hosted more than 2,000 scientific experiments. During its 30 years of service, 355 people from 16 countries flew 852 times aboard the shuttles.

On July 26, 1972, Rockwell International had won a $2.6 billion contract to build the Space Shuttle Orbiter, designated OV-101 (orbiter vehicle 101). The first test shuttle, the Enterprise, rolled out Sept. 17, 1976. From Jan. 31 to Oct. 26, 1977, it used a Boeing 747, modified as a shuttle carrier aircraft, to take it to the upper atmosphere for the approach and landing test program. The tests showed that the Orbiter could fly in the atmosphere and land like an airplane.

The Enterprise remained a test article. Its legacy of information was incorporated into the next shuttle, the Columbia (OV-102). On April 12, 1981, the Columbia was the first Space Shuttle to fly into orbit. During its 27 flights between 1981 and 2002, the Columbia’s achievements included the first launch of satellites from a Space Shuttle, the first flight of the European-built scientific workshop called Spacelab and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. The Columbia and its seven astronauts were lost Feb. 1, 2003, when the vehicle broke up over Texas during reentry from orbit. The program was then suspended until Space Shuttle Discovery returned to flight on July 28, 2005.

The Challenger (OV-99) was the second Orbiter to become operational at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It joined the NASA fleet in July 1982, flew nine successful missions, made 987 orbits and spent 69 days in space. Then on Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger and its seven-member crew were lost 73 seconds after launch.

The third shuttle, the Discovery (OV 103), had arrived at Kennedy Space Center in November 1983. On its first mission, on Aug. 30, 1984, it deployed three communications satellites. After modifications, it flew the first Space Shuttle mission of the post-Challenger era on Sept. 29, 1988. On March 9, 2011, it touched down after its final flight.

The Atlantis (OV-104) made its first orbital flight Oct. 3, 1985. During its second flight, Nov. 26, 1985, its astronaut crew conducted the first experiments for assembling structures in space. It was modified and returned into orbit Dec. 2, 1988. The May 19, 2000, launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis introduced a host of enhancements, including an adaptation of the glass cockpit system used in the Boeing 777. The Space Shuttle used Ku-band radar, built by Boeing Satellite Systems, to communicate with the ground. The radar function can pinpoint objects in space as far away as 345 miles (555 kilometers) for shuttle rendezvous. By linking with a NASA satellite, the communications function allowed crews to transmit television-like pictures, voice messages and high-speed data streams.

The next shuttle, the Endeavour (OV-105), made its first flight, May 7, 1992. Its final mission lasted from May 16, to June 1, 2011. The final Space Shuttle mission ended soon after, on July 21, 2011, when the Atlantis rolled to a stop at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

In 1996, Boeing and Lockheed Martin created the standalone company United Space Alliance (USA). USA served as NASA’s primary industry partner in human space operations for the day-to-day management of the Space Shuttle fleet and the planning, training and operations for 55 Space Shuttle missions.

As the major subcontractor to USA, Boeing integrated shuttle system elements and payloads; it also provided operations support services and ongoing engineering support. Since 1987, Boeing had already been the prime contractor to SPACEHAB Inc. for design, maintenance, integration and operation of pressurized, habitable modules that were carried in the payload bay of the Space Shuttle to facilitate logistics delivery and science research.

The Atlantis is on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Cape Canaveral, Fla.; the Endeavour can be seen at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

How Astronaut John Young Tamed the Space Shuttle

How Astronaut John Young Tamed the Space Shuttle

The forgotten bravery and latent tragedy behind the famed orbiter’s maiden launch.

This weekend legendary astronaut John Young succumbed from complications with pneumonia. The fighter pilot turned astronaut leaves behind an amazing legacy as an astronaut on the first crewed flight of the Gemini program in 1965. Four years later he was flying around the moon in a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11, and in 1972 Young walked on the surface as commander of Apollo 16.

These feats rightfully will be the cornerstone of his legacy, but Young was also at the center of the creation of a new NASA vehicle. It was named the Space Transportation System, but everyone called it the Space Shuttle, and the first flight of the shuttle Columbia would prove the spaceplane design worked—but it would also presage its ultimate demise.

On April 12, 1981, the two-man crew of STS-1 felt like they had something to prove. Packed with a steak and egg breakfast, the two men sat inside the Space Shuttle Columbia’s cockpit, staring at the sky. This was a milestone flight for them, personally, and the tension to get underway was palpable. The rookie, Robert Crippen, had never been to space before. For the veteran commander, John Young, this was the start of a new age of manned spaceflight, a legacy for the next generation to follow.

Negative chatter about the Space Shuttle had dogged the program nearly from its inception. The first launch suffered a year’s worth of delays, and the shuttle sat four months on the launch complex 39 as new problems mounted. After the ground team filled the external tanks, they discovered that 32 gaps where panels of insulation on the tank had fallen. Without that insulation, hard sheets of ice could form and break off break off during launch, damaging the heat tiles that protect the shuttle from the searing heat of reentry.

Newspapers routinely quoted skeptics who say the program is doomed, and a fatal accident that asphyxiates two ground crew members didn’t help. Slowly, the talk began to chafe at the astronauts.

“Two weeks before we launched, they said the space shuttle was a lemon.”

“Two weeks before we launched, they said the space shuttle was a lemon,” Young would later say in a NASA newsletter. “Right about then, everybody was down on the United States.”

But despite it all, the Shuttle captured people’s imagination. Nothing like it has ever flown before, and thousands gather across Florida to watch it blast off.

From Ace Pilot to Astronaut

Even NASA didn’t know what’s going to happen. In the 21st century, manned spacecraft are tested with unmanned flights before a human steps inside. In 1981, test pilots are the best pieces of equipment to deal with emergencies. and taking risks is what being an astronaut is all about.

Young’s background as a test pilot informs his point of view as he lobbied to fly the shuttle on STS-1 and land it at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

“I went to many, many meetings where they wanted to fly the thing unmanned.” Young later told, but finally the program manager, John Yardley, said he wasn’t going to come across California with nobody in the spacecraft. “So, we got to fly it manned.”

Back in the cockpit, the engines flare to life at 7am and seconds later, Columbia is on her way. The trip up is not picture perfect, since the shuttle pitches up steeper than expected, but it’s close enough. Ten minutes later she’s in orbit, the first winged craft to ever do so.

But getting home safely two days later will be another trick altogether.

Learning Reentry the Hard Way

The plan for re-entering Earth’s fiery atmosphere prepares for dreadful things to happen. Engine trouble. Emergency landings. Power failures. Thruster mishaps. “We prepared for so many disaster scripts in simulation where everything went wrong,” Young says later.

But most of all, there are unknown aerodynamics—no one had ever steered a spacecraft like this down to Earth before. They’d have to recreate the conditions on Earth in order to prepare.

“They used wind tunnels to predict what the parameters would be along the corridor, measured their ability to predict these phenomena, and pored over flight data from research aircraft such as the X-15 and the YF-12,” as described in a NASA newsletter.

Those jet planes, piloted by The Right Stuff vintage test pilots, had proved that aircraft and people could control flight at high speeds and altitudes. But the Columbia’s reentry profile is faster and longer than anything ever attempted. The way down requires piloting at multiple Mach speeds, each with separate aerodynamic conditions.

“I still wasn’t sure this sonofabitch was gonna fly.”

In comparison, dropping an uncontrolled capsule is an easy engineering exercise, and it’s why modern companies like Boeing and SpaceX are using familiar, gumdrop-shaped craft instead of spaceplanes to launch cargo and (hopefully in 2018) manned capsules to the International Space Station. Things that just drop are inherently simpler than an aircraft that has to maintain control. so Columbia’s designers must account for these changing conditions by being flexible.

“They varied the gains all through those Mach numbers, adjusting the flight path angle here, the angle of attack there, until the aerodynamic factors, the thermal constraints and the structural integrity of the vehicle were all harmoniously balanced,” NASA says of the STS-1 engineers.

The reentry is undeniably scary and there are doubts—even inside NASA—that the spacecraft would work. “Even with all of that testing,” Chris Kraft, former director of the Johnson Space Center, said a decade after the flight. “I still wasn’t sure this sonofabitch was gonna fly.”

Damage at Liftoff

Young and Crippen must test everything on the brand new space shuttle, and that includes the massive doors of the payload bay. This is where the shuttle will one day carry satellites and pieces of the International Space Station. On the inaugural trip the cargo bay has two experiments, “Developmental Flight Instrumentation” and the “Aerodynamic Coefficient Identifications Package.” These measure a slew of data — temperature, pressure, acceleration, and such —during the flight.

The doors work fine, opening like clamshells to access the vacuum of space. The open doors also enable the astronauts to see hidden parts of the shuttle. What they reveal is worrying: signs of damage to the heat shields protecting the Orbital Maneuvering System pods next to the shuttle’s vertical stabilizers. OMS pods’ main jobs are to provide some oomph to get into the right orbit, stay there, and at mission’s end to push the shuttle on its path to get back down to the planet. The thrusters flare periodically to keep the shuttle’s nose oriented down.

But damage to the pods is not the chief concern. If these tiles are damaged, does this mean that the tiles on the shuttle’s belly, which must take more heat, are also damaged? There is no way for mission controllers to answer, but there’s nothing to be done but to just see what happens.

As it turns out, there’s more damage than they know. During launch, chunks of ice falling from the external tank scrapped and pitted 300 heat shield tiles. Even worse, the exhaust from the solid rocker booster caused a pressure wave that bent a nearby strut.

Knowing none of this beyond the damaged tiles he can see, Young starts the journey home with a phrase: “Go for the deorbit burn. Thank you now.”

Columbia is over the Indian Ocean, on its 34th orbit of STS-1, when Young fires the OMS thrusters and aims the shuttle toward earth. Crippen, a new resident of space, can’t help but stare out the windows at the view. The Apollo vet is also confident as the big drop starts.

“I wanted to stay up there another two or three days to see how it really worked.”

“Don’t ask me why I knew,” he recalled later. “I just had a feeling that when we started re-entering that it would go great. The shuttle was working so well, I wanted to stay up there another two or three days to see how it really worked.”

The 15 minutes it takes the shuttle to return to Earth feels even longer without radio communication due to the hellish cocoon of superhot ionized plasma that surrounds the shuttle as it tears through the atmosphere. The first hint that the craft has survived is a return on a radar screen, followed by Young reporting that all’s well.

“What a way to come to California,” Crippen says.

The First Space Shuttle Flight, Space

The First Space Shuttle Flight Into Space

The first launch of the space shuttle Columbia in 1981 touched off an era of flight that allowed humans to ride in the same spacecraft to space more than once. The shuttle continued to fly into space for more than 20 years, orbiting Earth almost 5,000 times and spending more than 300 days outside of Earth’s gravity. During its time in service, Columbia carried 160 astronauts away from Earth; the craft holds the record for the shortest and longest space shuttle missions (2 days, 6 hours, 13 minutes and 12 seconds; and 17 days, 15 hours, 53 minutes and 18 seconds, respectively).

Columbia was the second of NASA’s space shuttles to suffer a fatal accident. On Feb. 1, 2003, while on its 28th mission, Columbia broke apart during re-entry, resulting in the death of the entire crew of seven astronauts.

The trailblazing shuttle

Officially known as Orbiter Vehicle-102, Columbia was named after Massachusetts-based ship Columbia Rediviva that, in the 1700s, explored the dangerous inland waters around what are now Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. The ship was also the first American one to circumnavigate the globe.

Construction of the space shuttle began in 1975 and was completed in 1979. At 122 feet (37 meters) long, Columbia stretched a bit farther than three school buses. The spaceship measured 78 feet (24 m) from wingtip to wingtip, and stood 57 feet (17 m) high. A robotic arm allowed its crew to manipulate objects outside of the ship.

On April 12, 1981, at 7 a.m. Eastern time, Columbia lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, 20 years to the day after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin became the first human to travel into space. The ship carried two crew members: seasoned commander John Young, who had already flown four missions on three types of spacecraft, and rookie pilot Robert Crippen.

Columbia accelerated into space propelled by two boosters that fell into the Atlantic Ocean, where they were later recovered and reused for other flights. The external tank fell from Columbia after about 9 minutes, and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. The spacecraft was the first crewed American craft to fly without a prior uncrewed test flight, and was the first crewed mission to use solid fuel rockets.

The sun rises over Kennedy Space Center as space shuttle Columbia awaits the start of STS-1, the first space shuttle mission, which launched on April 12, 1981. (Image credit: NASA)

Young and Crippen spent two days orbiting Earth. The goal of the mission, called Space Transportation System-1 (STS-1), was to put the new ship through its paces, verify its performance in space, and monitor potential problems. Future shuttle missions would carry satellites and laboratories, and help build the International Space Station. On Columbia’s first mission, however, only the necessary instrumentation to monitor its performance was onboard. Post-flight inspection revealed that some of the heat-shield tiles were lost or damaged during the launch, but modifications repaired the problem and the shuttle suffered no permanent damage.

Unlike previous spacecraft, which deployed a parachute to slow the craft’s fall into the ocean, the space shuttle was designed to glide back to Earth on its wings. On the morning of April 14, 1981, Columbia coasted onto a dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California as more than 200,000 spectators looked on.

Some of Columbia’s notable missions in later years included recovering the Long Duration Exposure Facility satellite from space (STS-32, January 1990), running the first Spacelab mission devoted to human medical research (STS-40, June 1991), and launching the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (STS-93, July 1999).

Space shuttle Columbia approaches Northrup Strip at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico, bringing an end to the STS-3 mission March 30, 1982. (Image credit: NASA)

Columbia’s legacy

Although Columbia was the first space shuttle to blast off, it was not the first shuttle. Enterprise, built in 1976, was the first space shuttle orbiter; it lacked engines and functional heat shields. Named for the spaceship on the iconic television show “Star Trek,” the Enterprise was dropped from a modified Boeing 747 over the dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force base in California to prove that its design allowed it to safely glide back to Earth. Enterprise never traveled into space and is now on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.

The space shuttle program was billed as a way to send humans to space at a lower cost than previous programs because the shuttle and its boosters could be reused. However, this was dependent on the craft flying many times a year — a pace that was never realized due to cost and safety reasons.

Nonetheless, the space shuttle program pioneered and facilitated many operations that are still important in the current space program, such as retrieving and repairing satellites and telescopes, helping to build the International Space Station, performing robotics, and sending astronauts on spacewalks for vehicle repairs and maintenance.

Between the first historic space shuttle flight in 1981 to the final touchdown in 2011, the Columbia and its four sister ships carried more than 850 astronauts on 135 trips into space — an average of four trips a year. Within that time there were two, multi-year pauses when all space shuttles were grounded: After Columbia’s fatal accident in 2003 and Challenger’s tragic explosion 17 years prior. Challenger disintegrated during launch on Jan. 26, 1986, killing the seven astronauts on board. After each incident, NASA conducted an investigation to identify the cause and address problems to ensure the safety of future missions.

The last space shuttle launch was on July 8, 2011, when Atlantis took off with four astronauts onboard for a 12-day delivery mission to the International Space Station. NASA retired the space shuttle fleet to make room for new exploration programs. In a statement released by the White House after the final launch of Atlantis, President Obama said that the end of the space shuttle program “propels us into the next era our never-ending adventure to push the very frontiers of exploration and discovery in space.”

ESA – Space Shuttle timeline

Space Shuttle timeline

The Space Shuttle flight era lasted from 1981 to 2011 but its roots lie deep in the 1960s. Many ambitious plans for spaceplanes with airliner-type operation were proposed but the result was inevitably a compromise: an extraordinary vehicle that could have been even better.

NACA (NASA’s predecessor) studies with US Air Force flying at high altitudes and supersonic speed with X-15 research aircraft and plans the X-20 development vehicle capable of spaceflight. The X-20 was not built, but led to study of ‘wingless’ aircraft and ‘lifting bodies’.

Several studies of reusable spaceplane designs.

The Space Task Group was formed by President Richard Nixon to evaluate designs and to recommend a national space strategy. The goal was a common strategy for NASA, the Department of Defense, and commercial and scientific users.

Early 1970s
After weighing the best Shuttle design against development and operating costs, a system consisting of a reusable winged orbiter, reusable solid rocket boosters and an expendable external tank was chosen. This was less technically ambitious than earlier fully reusable designs, but also less costly to build.

The Shuttle programme was formally launched by President Nixon.

North American Aviation (now Boeing Company) was selected as the prime contractor, including responsibility for the Orbiters. The contractor for the Solid Rocket Boosters was Morton Thiokol (now Alliant Techsystems). The External Tank contract was given to Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin). The ambitious main engines were developed by Rocketdyne (now Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne).

24 September 1973
The Spacelab Memorandum of Understanding was signed in Washington DC between ESRO and NASA.

18 February 1977
First flight. Space Shuttle Enterprise remained attached to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft throughout flight.

12 August 1977
First free flight; Enterprise.

26 October 1977
Final free test flight.

12 April 1981
First orbital test flight STS-1; Columbia.

11 November 1982
First operational flight, first mission to carry four astronauts, STS-5; Columbia.

4 April 1983
First flight of Challenger.

28 November 1983
Spacelab 1 mission with ESA astronaut Ulf Merbold.

30 August 1984
First flight of Discovery.

29 April 1985
Spacelab 3 mission.

29 July 1985
Spacelab 2 mission.

3 October 1985
First flight of Atlantis.

30 October 1985
Spacelab D1 mission with ESA astronaut Wubbo Ockels and DLR astronauts Reinhard Furrer and Ernst Messerschmid (largest crew flown to date, 8 people).

28 January 1986
Loss of Challenger 73 seconds after launch; all seven crewmembers died.

29 September 1988
First post-Challenger mission; Discovery.

4 May 1989
Magellan Venus orbiter launched from Atlantis.

24 April 1990
Launch of the Hubble Space Telescope; Discovery.

22 January 1992
Spacelab IML-1 mission with ESA astronaut Ulf Merbold.

24 March 1992
Spacelab ATLAS-1 mission with Belgian astronaut Dirk Frimout.

7 May 1992
First flight of Endeavour.

31 July 1992
STS-46 mission with ESA astronaut Claude Nicollier and ASI astronaut Franco Malerba.

26 April 1993
Spacelab-D2 mission with DLR astronauts Ulrich Walter and Hans Schlegel.

3 November 1994
Spacelab ATLAS-3 mission with CNES astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy.

22 February 1996
STS-75 mission with ESA astronauts Maurizio Cheli and Claude Nicollier and ASI astronaut Umberto Guidoni.

20 June 1996
Spacelab LMS mission with CNES astronaut Jean-Jacques Favier.

19 November 1996
Longest Shuttle mission: 17 days, 15 hours; Columbia.

4 December 1998
First ISS mission; Endeavour.

1 February 2003
Loss of Columbia, vehicle disintegrated during reentry; all seven crew members died.

25 July 2005
First post-Columbia mission; Discovery.

24 February 2011
Last flight of Discovery.

16 May 2011
Last flight of Endeavour.

8 July 2011
Last flight of Atlantis and last Shuttle flight (planned).

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About Space Shuttle Discovery

About Space Shuttle Discovery

Discovery has earned a place of honor in the collection of national treasures preserved by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The longest-serving orbiter, Discovery flew 39 times from 1984 through 2011 — more missions than any of its sister ships — spending altogether 365 days in space. Discovery also flew every type of mission during the space shuttle era and has a record of distinctions. Discovery well represents the full scope of human spaceflight in the period 1981-2011.

  • Satellite delivery and retrieval, Department of Defense, scientific, Hubble Space Telescope, Mir, and space station assembly, crew exchange, and resupply missions
  • Three Hubble Space Telescope missions: deployment (1990) servicing (1997, 1999)
  • Highest crew count: 251
  • First non-astronaut to fly on space shuttle, Charles Walker (1984)
  • Flown aboard Discovery: Sen. Jake Garn (1985) and Sen. John Glenn (1998)
  • Served as Return-to-Flight vehicle after Challenger and Columbia tragedies (1988, 2005)
  • Flown by first African American commander, Frederick Gregory (1989)
  • Piloted by first female spacecraft pilot, Eileen Collins (1995), and by Pamela Melroy on her first flight as pilot (2000)
  • Flew 100th shuttle mission (2000)
  • Flown by both women commanders, Eileen Collins (2005) and Pamela Melroy (2006)
  • Made first visit to Mir, rendezvous without docking (1995)
  • Made final docking visit to Mir space station (1998)
  • Made first docking with International Space Station (1999)
  • Delivered trusses, Harmony node, Kibo laboratory module, Robonaut2, Leonardo module, and tons of supplies to International Space Station (1999-2011)

Discovery’s Last Liftoff
Discovery launched on its final flight to the International Space Station on the STS-133 mission February 24, 2011.

Deployment of Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble Space Telescope being deployed on April 25, 1990, from the payload bay of Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-31).

Mir Cosmonaut Views Discovery
Cosmonaut Valeriy V. Polyakov looks out Mir’s window during rendezvous with Space Shuttle Discovery STS-63 mission.

Space Shuttle Discovery
Space shuttle Discovery after leaving the International Space Station on March 7, 2011 during STS-133.

Space Shuttle Discovery
With its drag chute unfurled, space shuttle Discovery rolls down Runway 15 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Multipurpose Logistics Module, Leonardo, Rests in Discovery’s Payload Bay
Italian Space Agency-built MPLM Leonardo, primary cargo of the STS-102 mission, rests in payload bay of space shuttle Discovery.

Space Shuttle Discovery
Bright lights at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility runway 15 illuminate the landing of Space Shuttle Discovery.

International Space Station
International Space Station (ISS) seen from Discovery during STS-96, the first mission to dock with ISS in 1999.

STS-96 Astronauts Adjust ISS Unity Hatch
Astronauts Rick D. Husband and Tamara E. Jernigan adjust hatch for Unity node during STS-96, first shuttle mission to dock with ISS.

Space Shuttle Discovery
Rendezvous and approach of Discovery to the Mir Russian Space Station on its final docking mission STS-91.

The crew of Space Shuttle mission STS-114, including Commander Eileen Collins, in front of the shuttle Discovery.

Space Shuttle Discovery
Space Shuttle Discovery stands ready for launch of mission STS-92, the 100th in the history of the Shuttle program.

The crew of Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-33 led by first African American shuttle commander Frederick Gregory.

Space Shuttle Discovery
Space Shuttle Discovery on approach to International Space Station performs backflip to allow photography of its heat shield.

Return to Flight Launch of Discovery
The Return to Flight launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery and its five man crew from Pad 39-B at 11:37 a.m. on September 29, 1988.

Glenn Photographs from Flight Deck
STS-95 Payload Specialist John Glenn positions himself to take photos from the Discovery’s aft flight deck windows on Flight Day 3.

Hubble Space Telescope with Discovery

Hubble Space Telescope is unberthed and lifted up into the sunlight during second servicing mission in 1997.

Space Shuttle Discovery STS-133 on Launch Pad
November 3, 2010. The space shuttle Discovery sits ready for launch on its final flight, STS-133, at Kennedy Space Center.

Space Shuttle Discovery Approaches ISS on STS-120 Mission
Space Shuttle Discovery approaches the International Space Station during STS-120 rendezvous and docking operations.

Discovery Mission Roster

  • 8 communications satellite delivery flights (1984-1989, 1995)
  • 4 Department of Defense flights (1985-1992)
  • 9 flights with science labs, instruments, probes as primary payloads (1990-1998)
  • 3 Hubble Space Telescope flights (1990 deployment and 2 servicing visits, 1997, 1999)
  • 2 flights to Russian space station Mir (1995, 1998)
  • 13 flights to the International Space Station (1999-2011)


Discovery in Washington, DC

Plan to be in Washington, DC?
Visit the Moving Beyond Earth gallery, focused on the space shuttle era. The exhibit includes a full-size mockup of the Space Shuttle Discovery middeck.

Look Inside

Explore Discovery’s flight deck, mid-deck, and payload bay in these panoramic images panoramic images .

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Chantilly, VA

14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway
Chantilly, VA 20151
Directions | Map it

The Space Shuttle s First Flight: STS-1

Space shuttle first flight

The Space Shuttle’s First Flight: STS-1

The first mission of the space transport system (STS-1) or Space Shuttle, flew on April 12, 1981, ending a long hiatus in American space flight. The last Apollo lunar mission flew in December 1972, and the joint American Russian Apollo-Soyuz Earth orbital mission closed in July 1975. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) intended that the shuttle make that permanent link between Earth and space, and that it should become part of “a total transportation system” including “vehicles, ground facilities, a communications net, trained crews, established freight rates and flight schedules and the prospect of numerous important and exciting tasks to be done.” It was to be “one element in a grand design that included a Space Station, unmanned planetary missions, and a manned flight to Mars.” 1

Awarded the Collier Trophy (in a tradition that began in 1911), the flight of STS-1 represented the greatest achievement in aviation for 1981. NASA, Rockwell International, Martin Marietta, Thiokol, and the entire government/industrial team responsible for the design, construction, and flight of the spacecraft, as well as the crew of the shuttle, John Young, Robert Crippen, Joe Engle, and Richard Truly, were all recipients of that award. Since 1962, NASA aerospace projects, including Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Landsat, and Skylab, had received ten of the twenty Collier awards. Now, the eleventh in twenty years went to a NASA team that had designed and flown something remarkably different from those previous craft. For the Space Shuttle was a true aerospace craft, a reusable vehicle that could take off from the Earth, enter and operate in space, and return to an Earth landing. N. Wayne Hale, a missions flight director for the shuttle, likened it to a battleship, which while it may have only a few aboard, nevertheless had a crew of thousands stationed around the world and linked by Mission Control. Owen Morris, the Engineering and Systems Integration Division head for the shuttle Program Office, described the shuttle as a particularly complex, integrated machine and an enormous engineering challenge. 2

Although it flew its maiden voyage only in 1981, NASA’s shuttle program began many years earlier and predated Apollo. In the late 1950s, as human space flight began to be seriously considered and planned, most scientists and engineers projected that if space flight became a reality it would build upon logical building blocks. First, a human would be lofted into space as a passenger in a capsule (project Mercury). Second, the passengers would acquire some control over the space vehicle (project Gemini). Third, a reusable space vehicle would be developed that would take humans into Earth orbit and return them. Next, a permanent Space Station would be constructed in a near-Earth orbit through the utilization of the reusable space vehicle. Finally, planetary and lunar flights would be launched from the Space Station using relatively low-thrust and reusable (and thus lower cost) space vehicles. The perception of what became the shuttle as that reusable space vehicle associated with an orbiting space station held fast well into the vehicle’s developmental stages.

1. Howard Allaway, The Space Shuttle at Work (Washington, DC: NASA, 1979), Foreword, pp. 21-27, 51-63.

2. Interview, Henry C. Dethloff with Owen Morris, Houston, Texas, August 8,1990; interview, Dethloff with N. Wayne Hale, Jr., Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, October 19,1989; and see the author’s “Suddenly, Tomorrow Came. : A History of the Johnson Space Center” (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4307, 1993), pp. 221-55, 285-305.


One of the known quantities in space flight was that the velocity required for a vehicle to escape earth’s gravitational pull was only 1.41 times the velocity required to achieve earth orbit. The great costs associated with space flight included the cost of fuel used to achieve orbit, the cost of the expendable boosters and fuel tanks used to drive a space vehicle into orbit or into space, and the effective loss of the inhabited capsule or vehicle which, while it returned, could not be reused. Space quickly came to be an expensive business, and as it developed, the shuttle, more so than previous projects, was cost-driven, both in its incentives and in its construction. But because the nation’s mission in space came to be to put an American on the Moon within the decade of the sixties, NASA’s Apollo lunar program preempted both the Space Station and the shuttle. And, when the shuttle appeared without a Space Station to build and service, it appeared emasculated and detached from its intended purpose —to some extent an aerospace plane without a space mission.

When did the Space Shuttle begin?
At what Point was it Created?

It could have been in March 1966, when a NASA planning team developed a statement of work for a “Reusable Ground Launch Vehicle Concept and Development Planning Study.” Or it could have been at an Apollo applications conference held at the Manned Spacecraft Center (later the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center) in Houston on October 27, 1966, when leaders of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Manned Spacecraft Center agreed to pursue independent studies of a shuttle system along the lines of a March 1966 statement of work. Or most certainly a point of inception would be January 23, 1969, when George E. Mueller, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, approved contract negotiations for initial shuttle design work . 3 Or it could have been even much earlier.

Under the authority of House Resolution 496, approved March 5, 1958, the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, chaired by Senator Overton Brooks, Democrat of Louisiana, convened hearings designed to provide direction and guidance for the creation of a new Federal agency that would head America’s space program. During those hearings many “experts” described the development of space stations and “controlled space flight” as the prerequisites for expeditions to the Moon and beyond. Brigadier General A. H. Boushey, Air Force Director of Advanced Technology listed the development of spacecraft, piloted by humans, as “the most important” of the goals which must receive attention before there could be true exploration of space:

By piloted spacecraft, I refer to a vehicle wherein a pilot operates controls and directs the vehicle. This is quite a different concept from the so-called man-in-space Proposal which merely takes a human ‘along for the ride’ to permit observation of his reactions and assess his capabilities. 4

Boushey believed that by the end of the decade of the 1960s, a large Space Station could be assembled by piloted “space tugs,” that would remain in orbit throughout their useful life and operate only outside the atmosphere. “In addition to the ‘tugs,’ manned

3. Memorandum, Max Akridge (PD-RV), Space Shuttle History, January 8, 1970, MSFC Reports Subseries, JSC History Office Houston, TX.

4. Staff Report of the Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration, The Next Ten Years in Space, 1959-1969, 86th Cong., 1st Sess., House Doc. No. 115 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1959), pp. 8-9.


resupply and maintenance spacecraft will shuttle from the Earth’s equator to the orbiting satellites.” Subsequently, a piloted spacecraft that would refuel at the Space Station in Earth orbit, “will land on the Moon.” 5

T. F. Morrow, vice president of Chrysler Corporation, thought that space stations or platforms might come in later decades, but that by 1969 one could expect “space trips encircling the Earth and the Moon.” Dr. Walter R. Dornberger, rocket expert for Bell Aircraft, expected to see “manned and automatic space astronomical observatories; manned space laboratories; manned and automatic filling, storage, supply and assembly space facilities; manned space maintenance and supply and rescue ships-all climaxed by the first manned flight to the Moon.” 6

Roy K. Knutson, Chairman, Corporate Space Committee for North American Aviation, offered a much more exact definition for a “winged” space vehicle. While a piloted capsule (such as Mercury) would take a person into space and provide important physiological data, “Ultimately . consideration must be given to the problem of reentering the Earth’s atmosphere from orbit in a winged vehicle capable of landing at a designated spot under control of a pilot.” 7 He viewed North American Aviation’s X-15 (then under development) as a forerunner of an aerospace craft, and believed solving the reentry problem would be the most crucial engineering task associated with developing a reusable shuttle. He offered, in 1958, a remarkably clear description of what would one day become the shuttle:

A large rocket booster would be used to boost the vehicle to high altitudes. Then a rocket engine installed in the ship itself would be ignited to provide further acceleration to the 25, 000 miles per hour required for orbiting. In a low trajectory, the vehicle would pass halfway around the Earth in 45 minutes. A retrorocket would start the ship out of orbit at perhaps 10, 000 miles from the landing point. As the vehicle enters the denser atmosphere, the nose and edges of the wing and tail will glow like iron in a blacksmith’s forge. The structure will be built to withstand this extreme condition, however, and the pilot glide down to a dead stick landing. 8

If not a point of inception, there was at least in 1958 a sense of direction for the development of a reusable aerospace craft.

Even earlier, before the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, scientists and engineers seriously discussed the construction and operation of space craft. Krafft A. Eriche, for example, presented “Calculations on a Manned Nuclear Propelled Space Vehicle” to the American Rocket Society in September 1957. In January 1957, NACA engineers on the staff of the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory at Moffett Field, California, filed a secret report on their “Preliminary Investigation of a New Research Airplane for Exploring the Problems of Efficient Hypersonic Flight.” It was to be an aircraft considerably exceeding the performance levels of the X-15 with “a rocket boost . to Mach numbers of the order of 10 and altitudes of the order of 140,000 feet.” 9

5. Ibid., p. 9.

6. Ibid., pp. 9-10.

7. Ibid., pp. 85-91.

8. Ibid., pp. 91.

9. “Preliminary Investigation of a New Research Airplane for Exploring the Problems of Efficient Hypersonic Flight,” by the Staff of the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory Moffett Field, California, NACA, Washington, DC, January 18, 1957; K. A. Eriche, “Calculations on a Manned Nuclear Propelled Space Vehicle,” September 5, 1957, JSC History Office.


With the insight and direction provided by Congress, the experiences of National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and the American (and Canadian) aircraft industry, NASA set about after its inception in 1958 to provide the United States leadership in space exploration, space science, and space technology. 10 But American successes in space seemed painfully gained, and slowly realized.

Not only had the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit on October 4, 1957, but in 1959 Soviet rocket scientists launched three successful interplanetary craft into space. The second, Luna II impacted on the Moon in September; Luna III flew behind the Moon in October 1959. On April 12, 1961, Major Yuri Gagarin became the first person to “leave this planet, enter the void of space, and return.” By 1961, with the encouragement of the Democratic Party campaign for the presidency, Americans had begun agonizing over the “missile gap.” After the elections and the inauguration, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy and Congress set a new course for NASA, preempting existing developmental programs and schedules. The United States, before the decade is out, should land “a man on the Moon” and return him safely to Earth. 11

The Apollo program became the leading effort. An orbital Space Station and Earth-to-orbit spacecraft, while they might contribute to a continuing presence in space and provide a platform for further lunar or planetary exploration, did not contribute to the short term goal of an American lunar landing within the decade. NASA readjusted its schedules and priorities to accommodate Apollo. The Space Station and the reusable aerospace craft remained viable, but future, options. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), in particular, continued to study the reusable vehicle concept and as early as January 1963, developed a statement of work for a fully reusable rocket-powered vehicle that could carry civilian passengers, and a sizable payload. Marshall awarded independent contracts to Lockheed Aircraft and North American Aviation for design and development studies. But the NASA focus continued to be on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. By the end of 1963, the Mercury program ended. The last Gemini mission flew on November 11, 1966. NASA scheduled the first Apollo flight for December 5, 1965. An Apollo with a Saturn booster, which was to send Apollo on its lunar voyages, flew an unpiloted test on February 26, 1966. 12 It appeared likely through most of 1966 that the Apollo-Saturn lunar program was on schedule. Should NASA complete its mission to land a man on the Moon within the decade, what would happen next?

NASA began to address that issue by establishing an Apollo Applications Office, in 1966, that would devise programs to utilize Apollo technology in non-lunar programs. In October 1966, the annual meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics focused on the question, “After Apollo, What Next?” And, in 1966, just as the Apollo-Saturn program seemed on the verge of success, Congress and the American public began to divert attention and public funds from space and NASA to the more urgent business of a growing war in Vietnam. The war, and money, began, even in the midst of Apollo, to turn NASA’s attention to the “more practical” approach to space. 13 More practical meant more efficient, less costly, more economic. Discussion of an orbital space platform or station, and a reusable Earth-to-orbit supply vehicle revived.

10. Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense and Chairman, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, April 2, 1958, Special Committee on Space and Astronautics, Senate Papers, Box 357, Lyndon B. Johnson Library (hereinafter LBJ Library), Austin, Texas. A large contingent of Canadian and British aeronautical engineers were recruited by NASA following he Canadian governments decision in 1958 to halt development of the AVRO fighter plane.

11. Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969 (New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971), pp. 280-81.

12. See Dethloff, “Suddenly Tomorrow Came. “, pp. 108-12, 221-22.

13. Ibid., pp. 191-93.


Thus, in March 1966, a special NASA planning team developed a statement of work for a reusable ground launch vehicle, and in October Marshall Space Flight Center and the Manned Spacecraft Center agreed to pursue independent study and research on such a spacecraft. NASA budgets, however, were becoming increasingly constrained, and at a January conference at NASA Headquarters administrators reluctantly agreed that there should be no new launch vehicle development in order to reduce the budget problems. The year, 1967, passed without any real progress in the development of a reusable spacecraft, but financial pressures became greater rather than less. In January 1968, George Mueller rekindled sentiments for work on a reusable spacecraft as potentially a cost-saving measure:

Where we stand now is the feasibility generally has been established for reusability. And we have much data on many concepts. We have an uncertain market demand and operational requirements. The R&D costs for fully reusable systems, including incremental development approaches, appear high. Personnel and cargo spacecraft seem to dominate Earth-to-orbit logistics costs. R&D costs for new logistics systems are in competition with dollars to develop payloads and markets (dollars are scarce). 14

Nevertheless, NASA put a decision for the development of a reusable vehicle on hold.

Meanwhile, in collaborative sessions with the Air Force, which was independently studying orbiting laboratories and aerospace planes, NASA and Air Force engineers agreed on the need to develop a logistics space vehicle with a payload range of 5,000 to 50,000 pounds for use with a Space Station. Marshall and Manned Spacecraft administrators again conferred in October, and agreed to issue a request to NASA Headquarters for a joint Phase A (concept definition) study for a logistics space vehicle. Headquarters tentatively agreed to award a study contract, but withheld approval pending the results of the Apollo 8 flight. 15

Apollo 8 was the first Apollo flight carrying “human cargo” powered by the Saturn rocket. Its original flight plan was to go into Earth orbit, but again MSFC and MSC combined to convince leaders at NASA Headquarters that Apollo 8 should be a circumlunar flight. Although perceived to be a “high risk” effort, Apollo 8, launched on December 28, 1968, put astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr. and William A. Anders into ten orbits about the Moon, and returned them safely to Earth. That flight provided greater assurance of the probability of completing a lunar landing within the decade, and accelerated the need to commit to a post-Apollo program. On January 23, 1969, George Mueller approved contract negotiations for design work on what would become the Space Shuttle. 16 Touchdown by Apollo 11 on the Moon’s surface in July 1969 brought work on the shuttle into sharper focus. The question, “After Apollo, What Next?” needed to be answered soon.

President Richard M. Nixon appointed a Space Task Group to study the problem and offer options. Internal NASA studies complemented the work of the task group. On January 29, NASA awarded Phase A study contracts for elements of an “integral launch and reentry vehicle” (ILRV). Lockheed Missile & Space Company studied clustered or modular reusable flyback stages. General Dynamics/Convair examined expendable fuel tanks and solid propulsion stages. Both contracts were administered by Marshall. The Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston directed a study by North American Rockwell for expendable tank configurations coupled with a reusable spacecraft. McDonnell Douglas,

14. Akridge, Space Shuttle History, p. 36.

15. Ibid., pp. 36-48.

16. Ibid., 49; Linda Neuman Ezell, NASA Historical Data Book, III, Programs and Projects, 1969-1978, (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4012, 1988), pp. 113-18.


working under Langley Research Center supervision, examined tank, booster, and spacecraft (“triamese”) configurations. Martin Marietta conducted an independent design study also submitted to NASA. 17 Concurrently, a joint DOD/NASA study began on space transportation which would also go to the President’s Space Task Group.

In October 1969, Congressman Olin E. Teague, Chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautic’s subcommittee for NASA oversight, asked the Director of each NASA Center involved directly in the manned space flight program to review various “levels of effort” as they might affect future programs when measured against the Space Task Group recommendations. He requested an evaluation of the Space Task Group’s preliminary recommendations that NASA focus on a reusable space craft and a permanent space station. And he requested personal letters from Dale D. Myers (Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight), Robert R. Gilruth (Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center), Kurt H. Debus (Director of Kennedy Space Center), Eberhard Rees (Director of Marshall Space Flight Center), and Wernher von Braun (Deputy Associate Administrator), “setting forth their views on the importance of moving forward with the Manned Space Flight Program at this time.” 18

Dale Myers described the changing focus of the mission in space from the single purpose pursued in the Apollo program, to a broader effort to use space technology for the benefit of man. “In earth orbit, a space station supplied by the reusable shuttle will provide additional economic gains and practical benefits.” They would facilitate a considerable expansion in space activities and increase the number of visitors into space. 19

Robert R. Gilruth, Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, responded that he firmly believed “that the reusable Space Shuttle and the large Space Station are vital elements which must be developed.” He described the “earth-to-orbit shuttle” as “the keystone to our post-Apollo activities.” Kurt Debus described the broad technology advances required for the development of a shuttle and Space Station, and noted that one cannot always identify the total utility of an innovation. Throughout history, he noted, innovations have been made without identifying all the uses and applications-he named the wheel, the telephone, the car, and the airplane as good examples. He advised proceeding now with the development of a fully reusable Space Shuttle, and the initiation of Phase B studies. Eberhard Rees wrote that the answer to the high costs of space transportation is to develop a system “which operates much like the cargo and passenger airlines, namely a Space Shuttle System.” 20

Wernher von Braun reviewed the accomplishments of the past decade, noting that the space program thus far “brought renewed strength in national leadership, in security, in education, and in science and technology, and in the will of America to succeed.”

. the key to our future accomplishments in space will be willingness to undertake the developments that will advance this nation to new plateaus of operational flexibility and will give us the technological advances needed to assure economical operations in space. No one would question the justification for a jet aircraft that can be flown over and over again instead of just once. With the Space Shuttle and the Space Station we will have the space age equivalent of the jet liner. 21


Possible configurations considered for the Space Shuttle as of 1970. (NASA photo).


Robert F. Thompson, who became the Manned Spacecraft Center’s Space Shuttle Program Director in April 1970, explained that the emphasis in the initial Phase A and DOD studies was to develop a fully reusable system, which he perceived at the time as the most cost-effective configuration, because of anticipated lower operating costs. However, as early as May 1969, the costs of developing fully reusable systems became ominous. By the end of the year NASA Headquarters shifted the Phase A studies to an emphasis on a combination of expendable and recoverable boosters coupled with reusable spacecraft. The Phase A reports were received in November 1969, and the DOD/NASA joint studies were completed in December 1970. Both the NASA internal studies and the DOD/NASA study continued to support a fully reusable spacecraft. 22

In May 1970, NASA awarded Phase B contracts to a North American Rockwell and General Dynamics team and to a McDonnell Douglas and Martin Marietta team for definition studies of a fully reusable shuttle. But in June, contracts were awarded to the Grumman Aerospace and Boeing partners for studies of various expendable and reusable booster and fuel tank designs, to Lockheed to examine an expendable fuel tank for the orbiter, and to Chrysler for design study of a single stage reusable orbiter. There were other contracts to study various assemblies through the remainder of 1970. 23 The year ended without a decision as to the design of the shuttle, but with a number of interesting options.

But the estimated costs of developing a fully reusable shuttle were rising, and costs soon became the decisive element, not only in the shuttle design, but in determining future NASA programs.

The development of a fully reusable shuttle was conservatively estimated to “require more than a doubling of NASA’s budget, unrealistic at any time and particularly so in the light of increasing military expenditures in Southeast Asia.” During congressional hearings on the FY 1971 NASA budget, NASA Comptroller Bill Lilly responded to questioning that if choices had to be made, the shuttle had to precede the Space Station because, “if they could not be developed concurrently, the shuttle in extended sortie, could act as a surrogate Station and the long term future of space flight lay in reducing the cost of all operations, but foremost in the cost of delivery to low Earth orbit.” 24 As will be seen, funding was tenuous throughout the development program. The decision on a fully, or even a partially, reusable shuttle apparatus was still pending.

Finally, on April 1, 1971, NASA directed that the Phase B contracts shift the emphasis from “fully reusable” to consider an “orbiter” with external expendable hydrogen tanks. James C. Fletcher, who had replaced NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine in April, believed that whatever the technical merits of a fully reusable space vehicle might be, the $10.5 billion price tag currently assigned shuttle development simply would “not fly” with Congress. In June 1971, Max Faget, who headed MSC’s Advanced Missions Program Office, presented an alternate configuration, that is, a two-stage shuttle with a drop tank orbiter. Administrator Fletcher accepted the configuration as NASA’s choice, and on June 16, 1971, sent Congress a letter of decision. Studies of the new configuration with a fully reusable orbiter, and expendable or reusable external booster rockets and tanks, subsequently lowered estimated R&D costs to about $5 billion, or one-half that of the fully reusable vehicle. 25

The new partially reusable configuration involved the lowest development costs, but also enhanced the aerodynamics of the shuttle’s orbiter, and safety. An internal tank

22. Ezell, NASA Historical Data Book 3:48; Dethloff, Suddenly Tomorrow Came. pp. 224-35; Akridge, Space Shuttle History, pp. 49-98.

23. Ezell, NASA Historical Data Book, 3:48.

24. Loftus, Andrich, Goodhart, and Kennedy, Evolution of the Space Shuttle Design, p. 8.

25. Eagle Engineering Inc., Shuttle Evolution Study, April 23,1986, Loftus Historical Documents File, JSC History Office.


Shuttle Design Evolution 1972-1974.

design required heavy insulation of the spacecraft, much heavier launch weights, and flight difficulties resulting from tank torsion and “slosh.” The very high pressure required in the fuel tanks also created higher risks and engineering and maintenance problems. 26 Refinement of the proposed new configuration took yet another two years. For the time, the solution seemed the best in terms of costs and technical development.

Despite NASA’s June 1971 commitment to a reusable orbiter launched by an expendable or partially reusable propulsion system, there was no specific congressional funding for shuttle R&D. Shuttle funding came from general NASA spaceflight operations programs through FY 1973. Moreover, shuttle program expenditures had risen from $12.5 million in 1970 to $78.5 million in 1971 . 27 Clearly, formal approval had to be secured or study on the shuttle project had to be terminated.

In June 1971, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, Dale D. Myers, who had managed North American Rockwell’s shuttle development work before he replaced George Mueller at NASA headquarters, assigned Marshall responsibility for development of the shuttle main engine and boosters, and the Manned Spacecraft Center responsibility for developing the orbiter. Throughout 1971 and into 1972, NASA extended the Phase B contracts, and awarded new ones to examine variously the use of existing Titan and Saturn rockets as shuttle launch vehicles, the feasibility of using liquid or solid propulsion boosters, and methods of recovering boosters and external tanks. In January 1972, Marshall Space Flight Center awarded contracts to Aerojet-General, Lockheed Propulsion Company, Thiokol Chemical, and United Technology Center to study the possibilities of using

26. Ibid., p. 222.

27. Ezell, NASA Historical Data Book, 3:69.


existing 120-inch and 156-inch solid rocket motors as part of the shuttle booster system. 28 Preliminary and final reports confirmed the lower costs of the new shuttle configuration.

On January 5, 1972, Administrator Fletcher and Deputy Administrator George Low met with President Nixon and his staff assistant, John Erlichman, for a review of the shuttle program. Nixon approved the revised and less costly shuttle program, and wanted to stress both the civilian and the international aspects of shuttle development and future missions. 29

Nixon’s support for the shuttle, however, became hoisted on the petard of the growing difficulties in Vietnam, the proposed Air Force supersonic transport plane (SST) cancelled by Congress the previous year, and party politics. On January 7, Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME), a Democratic candidate for the presidency, told Florida audiences while campaigning there that the Space Shuttle was an extravagance and should be shelved. Reflecting the sentiments of many Americans, the greater priorities of the nation, he said, were “hungry children, inadequate housing, decaying cities, and insecure old age.” He accused President Nixon of practicing “pork barrel politics” by supporting the $5.5 billion space program. 30

Senator Walter Mondale (D-MN), another aspirant for president, called the Space Shuttle program “ridiculous” on a nationally televised debate. “At the present and known levels of space activity, to produce the Space Shuttle would be like buying a fleet of goldplated Cadillacs to go out and repair the tire of a Pinto. It is not a new exploration weapon. It is simply a truck-a very expensive truck that is not worth the money.” 31

Senator William Proxmire (D-WI), who successfully led the fight against the SST in 1971, called Nixon’s decision to go ahead with what he estimated to be the “$15.5” billion shuttle project, “an outrageous distortion of budgetary priorities.” The President, Proxmire said, had chosen the Space Shuttle over schools, public health, housing, mass transit, open space, environmental needs and other vital programs. 32 The space program also had powerful advocates in Congress, including Texas Congressman Olin E. Teague (and the entire Texas delegation), Mississippi Senator John C. Stennis, and Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, among others. Nevertheless, the administrative decision to proceed with shuttle development rested upon Congressional approval and budgets. The future of the Space Shuttle seemed particularly tenuous in 1972 as Congress began the budget debates near the end of January.

Meanwhile, NASA increased its allocation for shuttle spending from $78 million in 1971 to $100 million for 1972 from its internal operations funds. In March 1972, Myers assigned the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston “lead center” authority for overall Space Shuttle Program Development management and control. Robert F. Thompson, a member of the original Space Task Group at Langley Research Center (which became the nucleus of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas) continued as manager for the NASA-wide Shuttle Program Office. Thompson previously headed the Manned Spacecraft Center’s Apollo Applications Program Office, concerned with postApollo planning. 33

During 1971 and 1972, the Manned Spacecraft Center and Marshall Space Flight Center began to fold personnel from Apollo offices into the shuttle program. Under the duress of budget cutbacks, and tenure, and with the successful close of the Apollo program, many NASA administrators and engineers began to leave NASA. Wernher von Braun relinquished

28. Ibid., p. 48.

29. George Low, “Meeting with the President on January 5, 1972,” memo for the record, January 12,1972, Shuttle Series, JSC History Office; Ezell, NASA Historical Data Book, 3:48.

30. Miami Herald, January 7, 1972; Typed memorandum, political roundup, January 7, 1972, Shuttle Papers, 007-24, JSC History Office.

31. Wirephoto VVX2, January 16, 1972, Shuttle Papers, 007-24, JSC History Office.

32. Houston Post, January 9, 1972.

33. Ezell, NASA Historical Data Book, 3:48; Manned Spacecraft Center Announcement, Shuttle Files, 00743, JSC History Office.


the post of Director of Marshall Space Flight Center to Eberhard Rees in 1970. Robert Gilruth stepped down as Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in January 1972. Chris Kraft, formerly head of Apollo flight operations, replaced him. 34 At the very height of Apollo successes, NASA seemed to be imploding, while at the same time it redirected personnel and funds into the shuttle program. There were concurrent reductions in force and organizational realignments among NASA’s aerospace contractors.

Although NASA had some 14 years of space flight experience behind it by 1972, the shuttle was something very new and very different from what had gone before. As Aaron Cohen, manager of the Orbiter Project Office in Houston explained, the “orbiter, although similar to Apollo in that it goes into space, is very different.” The shuttle orbiter (which is usually identified in the public mind as the shuttle) is not simply a spacecraft, but a launch vehicle, a spacecraft, and an airplane combined. The transition from Apollo to shuttle, Cohen said, represented a transition of technology spanning ten years. There were major technological advances over Apollo in terms of materials, electronics, propulsion, and software. The launch configuration of the Space Shuttle was also different than had ever flown before. With Apollo the thrust was through the center of gravity, but with the shuttle the thrust was through the orbiter with an offset external tank. That configuration raised enormous problems with the structural dynamics of the assembly. In addition, whereas Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury launched from series burns, the shuttle utilized a parallel engine burn. 35 Most significantly, perhaps, the shuttle engines, unlike the Saturn or Titan engines, were “throttlable,” having a controlled engine burn.

Cohen stressed that certain technical elements of the shuttle were so advanced they were outside the existing state of the art.” The controlled burn and the high pressures and temperatures at which the engines operated were an engineering challenge. Even to test the apparatus required innovative testing equipment and procedures. The thermal protection system involved the development of a heat-resistant tile that had never previously existed. Each individual tile fitted on the orbiter nose and underbody had to be individually designed and tested. 36 One of the most highly sophisticated and advanced systems was the avionics (guidance, navigation, and control) system which fused electronics with aviation (hence avionics) and made the guidance and control systems responsive and complementary to human direction.

“The avionics system synchronized four centralized computers and had a single computer independent of the other four.” The fifth computer was on standby to step in should there be a software problem in one of the other computers. The four synchronized computers, the “heart and brains” of the shuttle, “communicated with each other 440 times per second.” One computer was the lead computer, the other three “voted” on the input and output of each other. “Should the three other computers disagree with the lead computer, it was voted out of the system.” Air data, microwave sensors, gyros, accelerometers, star trackers, and inputs from ground based laboratories all fed into the avionics system. 37 The shuttle avionics system represented revolutionary advances in electronics, computer technology, and guidance and control in the few short years since Apollo. Similarly, Apollo communications systems (using a unified S band) were inadequate to support shuttle missions.

Shuttle avionics systems were so advanced that special laboratories were required to design and develop them. NASA constructed a $630 million Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL) at Johnson Space Center for the job. A special Shuttle Mission Simulator (SMS) trained crews to use the shuttle and fly missions in what is now popularly

34. See note above, and Dethloff, “Suddenly Tomorrow Came . . “, pp. 209-10.

35. Aaron Cohen, “Progress of Manned Space Flight from Apollo to Space Shuttle”, presented at ARA 22nd Aerospace Sciences Meeting, January 9-12, 1984, Reno, Nevada, in Shuttle Papers, JSC History Office.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.


termed a “virtual reality” setting. Astronauts returning from shuttle missions reported that the simulations were so accurate they felt they had flown the mission many times. 38 Despite the advanced technologies used by the shuttle as compared to Apollo, Cohen believed that a permanent presence in space, that is the establishment of a Space Station, would require yet again major advances in new technologies.

New technologies were expensive. Research and development costs (R&D) grew rapidly. Inflation, which peaked at almost 13 percent in 1973, diminished appropriated funds and budgets proportionately. NASA and other government agencies were particularly affected by inflation because appropriations were approved in a previous year at fixed dollar levels. NASA found itself spending dollars that bought much less than anticipated. Congressional appropriations for NASA R&D declined by almost $450 million (15 percent) in 1971, and were reduced again in 1972 by another $40 million. R&D appropriations improved by about $80 million in 1973, but collapsed by over $400 million in 1974. During the most critical years of shuttle development, from 1971 through 1977, R&D appropriations remained remarkably stable. But the value of the dollars appropriated declined by about 50 percent in those five years. Budget stresses caused “slippage” and delays in development and production, and those in turn, raised the final costs of developing the shuttle.

Table 1, below, provides an overview of total NASA R&D funding and designated shuttle funding during the developmental stage of the shuttle. 39

NASA Appropriations, 1969-1978
(in thousands of dollars)

Research &
Space Shuttle
$ -0- a
9,000 b
160,000 c

a the shuttle was funded as part of the spaceflight operations program through FY 1973.

b for a space station only.

c for shuttle and station; $6 million requested for station definition. [Source: NASA Pocket Statistics (January 1994), and for shuttle funding, 1969-1977, see Linda Neuman Ezell, ed., NASA Historical Data Book, 3:69.]

38. Mid.; and see Dethloff, “Suddenly Tomorrow Came. pp. 243, 247-51.

39. Ezell, NASA Historical Data Book, 3:12, 69.


That funding should be viewed in light of NASA’s overall budget which, based on the value of 1992 dollars, dropped sharply from the FY 1965 peak in excess of $22 billion, to a 1974-1979 average of only $9 billion, as adjusted for inflation using 1994 constant dollars.

Although shuttle-specific funding by Congress did not begin until 1974, in 1972 and 1973 NASA began to move from the planning and study stage of shuttle development to the design and production stage. One of the great achievements of shuttle development had to do with the production (and business) management of complex disparate systems and integrating those systems or machines into one wholly integrated greater machine. There were many (in fact all) of the NASA centers involved in the creation of the Space Shuttle. There were far more, literally hundreds, of independent private manufacturers involved in its development. NASA, in effect, was the management team assembled for the production of a single machine by hundreds of diverse private manufacturers. NASA did not build the shuttle, private industry did. Thus, the Space Shuttle continued the peacetime mobilization of American science, engineering, and industry, begun at the inception of NASA and America’s entry into the space age —albeit, perhaps, at a lower level.
The general NASA management structure was, of course, inherited from the Apollo and earlier programs, but there were important refinements. In 1971, NASA Headquarters assigned Marshall Space Flight Center responsibility for developing the booster stages and the shuttle main engines. Marshall, of course, had basic propulsion (engine) responsibilities from the beginning. Engine testing was assigned to Stennis Space Center, which had begun as Marshall’s testing laboratory for the Apollo-Saturn engines. The Manned Spacecraft Center had responsibility for developing the orbiter, or piloted vehicle. Such had been Houston’s basic responsibility since its establishment in 1961. Kennedy Space Center, formerly the Cape Canaveral Launch Operations Directorate under Marshall, had responsibility for launch and recovery of shuttle flights —as it had throughout the program. The technical, developmental work on the shuttle at all the NASA centers was coordinated through the shuttle Program Office located at MSC in Houston. (Under the Apollo program, many collaborative management decisions were reached informally between the Manned Spacecraft Center and Marshall, or were coordinated or passed through the Manned Space Flight Office in Washington.) The Shuttle Program Office, in turn, reported to the Office of Manned Space Flight at NASA Headquarters in Washington. 40

The command and control management structure resembled the Apollo management systems, but there were some important differences. Production management was more decentralized than before, but control (integration) was more centralized. The shuttle program did rely (even more heavily) on Apollo-type Integration Panels which coordinated design and construction projects so that the pieces literally fit together and worked together. Integration was the critical element in shuttle production-which, as Owen Morris noted, was a so much more complex machine than Apollo. The Integration Panels reported to the Systems Integration Office in the Shuttle Program Office at the Manned Spacecraft Center and the Systems Integration Office reported to a Policy Review Control Board chaired by NASA Headquarters. 41

Shuttle management became a “state-of-the-art” system for very large-scale industrial production. There were, of course, important precedents, such as the construction of the Panama Canal, a battleship, hypersonic aircraft, and Apollo. None of those systems, however,

40. Ibid., pp. 121-22.

41. Memorandum from Joseph Loftus in response to an inquiry from Aaron Cohen [1990], “How did we manage Integration in the Apollo and Shuttle Programs?” Loftus personal files; MSC, Roundup, June 18,1971; Dale D. Myers, “Space Shuttle Management Program,” March 14, 1972, NASA Management Instruction Subseries, JSC History Office.


involved the complexity of machinery, electronics, computers, and materials as entered into shuttle construction.

Within the three basic management levels for shuttle development technical engineering and management decisions flowed from the bottom up. The “bottom” consisted of the Level III project offices, such as the Orbiter Office at the Manned Spacecraft Center and the Booster Office at Marshall Space Flight Center. The Level III offices managed the production contracts. Level III offices maintained a Resident Office (or engineer) at the primary contractors production site, and often co-located a manager with the appropriate Level II division. The Level II office was the Shuttle Program Office. It had responsibility for systems engineering and integration, configuration, and overall design and development, or as Dale Myers stated: “program management responsibility for program control, overall systems engineering and system integration, and overall responsibility and authority for definition of those elements of the total system which interact with other elements.” The Level II office established “lead center” authority for engineering and development management. Headquarters, or Level I, in turn had overall program responsibility and primary responsibility for the assignment of duties, basic performance requirements, the allocation of funds to the Centers, and control of major milestones. 42

The management structure created a very decentralized, independent production system-very compatible, if not necessary, to the very diverse and autonomous private entities that made up the manufacturing or production base of the NASA program. One of the great achievements of the space program, contrary to the tendency in large scale bureaucratic enterprises, was to harness the basic strengths of American industry through decentralized management and production.

Although it was not designated “Level IV,” the real production base of the shuttle program was private industry. The basic management tool was the NASA contract, and effectively, competition for the contract. It was the contract (and the primary contractor’s subcontracts) that mobilized American industry in support of the space program.

The preliminary study, design, and feasibility contracts (Phases A & B), mentioned earlier, with in-house study and tests produced the technical parameters for issuing an RFP or Request for Proposal. NASA began issuing RFP’s for shuttle procurement in the spring of 1971. Aerojet Liquid Rocket Company, Pratt & Whitney, and Rocketdyne were invited to submit proposals for the development of the shuttle main engines. Soon after, the Manned Spacecraft Center issued an RFP for a shuttle thermal protection system, to protect the orbiter and its occupants during the critical reentry phase. In July 1971, MSFC selected Rocketdyne as the primary contractor for the production of thirty-five shuttle main engines. Pratt & Whitney challenged the Rocketdyne award and during a GAO (General Accounting Office) review, Rocketdyne was given an interim contract. In March 1972, MSC issued an RFP for the development of containerized shuttle payload systems, and NASA issued an RFP for the development of the shuttle, with the design due in May. 43

North American Rockwell (later Rockwell International), McDonnell Douglas, Grumman, and Lockheed submitted proposals for the shuttle. NASA approved an interim letter contract with Rockwell in August 1972, and issued a final contract on April 16, 1973. Rockwell, in turn, subcontracted major components of the shuttle orbiter to other aerospace firms. Fairchild Republic Division of Fairchild Industries constructed the vertical tail unit; Grumman, the delta wings; General Dynamics’ Convair Aerospace Division subcontracted for the mid-fuselage section, and McDonnell Douglas had responsibility for

42. See note above; Catalog of Center Roles (Washington, DC: NASA, December 1976), pp. 1-30, Loftus Subseries, JSC History Office.

43. Ezell, NASA Historical Data Book, 3:122.


The Space Shuttle rises from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center Florida, a few seconds after 7 a.m., April 12, 1981. This first flight was flown by astronauts John Young, Commander and Robert Crippen, Pilot. (NASA photo no. 81-H-285).


The Space Shuttle Mission Profile. (NASA photo).

the orbital maneuvering system. 44 The contractor and subcontractors, in turn, had subcontracts and suppliers from the very broad gamut of American industry. Electronics, ceramics, metal fabrications, plastics, and chemicals were all heavy contributors to the shuttle. The shuttle was to be a composite creation of American industry, technology, and labor.

The shuttle grew and changed even as it came into being. New problems, new concerns, and new technologies altered the configuration and the engineering as the shuttle took shape. Each new alteration, in turn, often affected the design, performance, and configuration of other systems. The shuttle offers a classic study of “systems engineering.” For example, the decision to utilize a “returnable” external fuel tank rather than build the tank as part of a fully integrated reusable vehicle, did not solve the fuel tank problem. Similarly, although NASA opted for a fully reusable orbiter, the decision as to how to build or equip the orbiter to resist the extreme reentry temperatures came later. And while the major function of the shuttle was to carry “payloads” into space, the design of the payload bay continued to change. Changing payloads altered flight characteristics and changed flight plans. Building an aerospace craft unlike anything built before, and one that could never be “test” flown in an unmanned version (unlike Apollo), placed engineering and design work on the creative edge.

44. Ezell, NASA Historical Data Book, 3:122-23.


Robert F. Thompson, the Space Shuttle Program Manager from 1970 through 1981, credits “the decision to abandon the ‘fully reusable’ ground rule and employ expendable tankage for the orbiter main rocket engines propellant was perhaps the single most important configuration decision made in the shuttle program.” And it occurred late in the definition stage of shuttle development. Through most of 1972, NASA intended to launch the shuttle into orbit with two solid rocket boosters fueled by an external propellant tank, which package would then be deorbited using smaller solid rocket motors, retrieved, and reused. On June 5, 1972, Howard W. (Bill) Tindall, John Mayer’s deputy and data coordination chief for Apollo mission planning, flagged a critical problem in returning the fuel tank from orbit. “It’s becoming increasingly evident that a probable major problem area and operations cost driver will be the HO tank separation and retrofire.” It appeared, he said, that a very expensive, complex, and expendable attitude control system would be required for the tank to return it from orbit. The problem, he suggested, should be given high priority. 45 It was.

The problem was directed to a team from the Advanced Mission Design Branch of the Mission Planning and Analysis Division in the office of the Director of Flight Operations at the Manned Spacecraft Center. The team reported in August that the fuel tank could be “staged” (dropped) prior to orbit. That would solve the expensive and difficult tank reentry problem. The idea was rejected, however, because for the orbiter to achieve orbit, it would need to do so with its own engines, and that would require additional internal liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen fuel tanks. That would mean a heavier lifting body, higher risks, and redesign of the entire shuttle configuration. The Advanced Mission Design Branch restudied the problem and discovered that the existing orbital maneuvering system could accelerate the orbiter into orbital velocity after separation of the external tank. 46

Thompson rejected the idea because the orbital maneuvering system would require more fuel and larger tanks. This was September. In December, new studies and a “resizing exercise,” revealed that orbital maneuvers could be accomplished on less fuel than originally planned-meaning that additional fuel would be available for the use of the orbital maneuvering system to achieve orbital velocity. The Advanced Mission Design Branch passed this Information on in their Weekly Activity Report (January 29,1913) and in March the Advanced Mission Design Branch team planned a launch to include suborbital staging of the external propellant tank with a recovery in the Indian Ocean. It also became apparent that not only could the suborbital staging work, but it would give the orbiter an additional 5,000 pound payload capacity. NASA elected, however, to retain the previous 32,000 pound payload requirement, and use the savings to reduce the thrust of the solid rocket boosters, and substantially lower flight costs. NASA subsequently estimated total program savings of $238 million. 47 Costs remained a compelling ingredient in shuttle design.

At almost every step design and development options constantly appeared. Thompson pointed out that NASA selected the more advanced, higher performance main liquid rocket engine over lower pressure but less costly engine as used in the upper stages of the Apollo program. Despite its higher developmental costs, the higher pressure engine could drive a larger orbiter, created maximum launch acceleration, and improved abort capabilities, and in total seemed to offer better capabilities at reasonable costs. Once the expendable tank design was accepted, NASA restacked the launch, enabling the use of the high

45. Memorandum, April 24,1974, Development of Suborbital Staging for the Shuttle External Propellant Tank, Loftus Historical Documents File, JSC History Office; Robert F. Thompson, 1984 Von Karman Lecture, “The Space Shuttle—Some Key Program Decisions.”

46. Development of Suborbital Staging for the Shuttle External Propellant Tank, p. 2.

47. Ibid., pp.2-3; Members of the Advanced Missions Design Branch who developed the suborbital staging plan included Jack Funk, John T McNeely, Burl G. Kirkland, Stewart F. McAdoo, Jr., and Victor R. Bond.


performance orbiter engines throughout the launch phase, and gained the protective margin of orbiter engine start and thrust verification before the main booster ignited. Another “developmental” decision had to do with attempting a crewless test flight. The guidance, navigation and control systems on the shuttle, however, were constructed for human control. Such a shuttle flight, if it could be accomplished, would not truly test the shuttle flight controls. The first flight of the shuttle then, would be a piloted flight. 48

One problem that seemed to defy a wholly satisfactory solution had to do with insulating the orbiter adequately for its return into the atmosphere, a journey that generated temperatures on its outer body of 3,000° F (1,650°C). Designers recognized two basic approaches to the problem. One was to use conventional aircraft materials such as aluminum, titanium, and composites for the body and then insulate over the external skin with silicate materials. Another was to build a “hot structure” of metals that could withstand the high temperatures and absorb and disperse the temperatures throughout the external skin. This entailed the development of new metals. NASA chose the more known quantities-that is building the shuttle of basic aircraft metals, and overlaying the leading edges with thermal protective coatings. 49

There were, however, no thermal protective materials in use that could adequately insulate against the high temperatures. Those had to be developed. A task group of NASA engineers, working with Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, Battelle/Columbus laboratories and university scientists and engineers, developed a silicone type tile (high purity foamed silica coated with borosilicate glass) that could withstand the temperatures. But once developed, the tile created new problems. For one, it was extremely fragile. The tile was tested by simply firing missiles (such as a .22 slug) at the material to simulate an impact by a meteorite. The prototype tile crumbled. The tiles were then thickened and redesigned with a ludox (silicon-boron) base. That seemed to work. Then, the next problem involved attaching the tiles to the leading edges of the orbiter. That required the creation of new glues, several of them in fact, before a suitable adhesive could be found. Finally, 31,000 tiles, each independently cast to fit the appropriate location on the shuttle, had to be hand glued to the leading edges. The job required 670,000 hours of labor (or 335 person-years). 50 While tile development might euphemistically be called “leading edge” technology, the work did reflect the fact that building a Space Shuttle required invention and new technology ranging from flush toilets that would work in the environment of space and the development of adhesives and insulating materials, to the creation of intricate life support, avionics, and computer systems. One of the important and enduring elements of shuttle development relates to the inception of new technology and the application of that technology to other areas. Conventional airplane construction, air safety, navigation, and flight control have been rich recipients of NASA shuttle technology, as have human medicine, computers, plastics and metallurgy. The shuttle and space flight have had a much more pervasive and profound influence on Americans than is evidenced by the construction of the vehicle, or by its flights into space. Its greatest impact has been on Earth, rather than in space.

The significance of the Space Shuttle lay not in its flight per se, but in its payload, that is the freight, cargo, laboratory, or experiments delivered from the earth into space, and returned safely to earth. Shuttle payloads became one of NASA’s most complex problems, as much in the social and political context as in the technical realm. Because of the changing

48. Thompson, Von Karmen Lecture, pp. 5-9.

49. Ibid., pp. 10-12.

50. See Roger E. Bilstein, Orders of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915-1990 (NASA: Washington, DC, NASA SP-4406, 1989), pp. 69-70; and Loftus, Andrich, Goodhart and Kennedy, “The Evolution of the Space Shuttle Design,” p. 12.


payloads to be carried by the shuttle, each flight involved unique technical preparations and refitting. But the social and organizational structuring required for payload delivery proved most troublesome.

A special Ad Hoc Shuttle Payload Activities Team, headed by Charles J. Donlon, manager of the Shuttle Program Office, concluded that what would be needed in NASA would be “a radical change in thinking . to meet the vastly different “ferris wheel” mode of operation . required in the shuttle operational period.” NASA must disassociate the transportation system from the hardware. Authorization for shuttle payloads within and without NASA must be carefully defined. The authority of the payload project manager and the transportation operator must be carefully delineated, and the flight people must be out of the “payload approval loop.” Science payloads cannot be given lower priority than commercial payloads. Lead times for the development of payloads and the boarding of payloads need to be short in order to make the system work. And the committee particularly (and repeatedly) warned of the problem of competition among NASA Centers for control over payload operations and decisions. There was considerable skepticism that NASA could ever truly become a service organization, which would be required for effective shuttle operations, as opposed to its traditional mode of operation as a research and development agency. 51 Thus, the effort to build and launch the first shuttle involved some very basic social and philosophical re-evaluations, as well as technological innovation.

Despite the problems, and continuing financial constraints, NASA anticipated the first shuttle flight could occur in 1978. But budget pressures and technical problems continued to cause “slippages.” As early as 1972, Dale Myers believed that cost overruns being experienced in the Skylab program would delay shuttle development and possibly cause it to be cancelled: “The Shuttle Program will live or die based on our capability to keep it reasonably on schedule, and this first schedule impact caused by funding limitations will cause an increase of cost at completion which cannot now be estimated” Delays did increase costs, and technical problems as with the tiles, the tanks, and the rocket motors did so as well. 52

For example, Rockwell engineers working on the Orbiter’s Thermal Protection System (the insulating tiles) complained that funding shortages caused work on the thermal protection system to be performed out of sequence and later than planned. Budget constraints often led to deferring quality testing. Problems were identified much later than they should have been. More work had to be done (at additional costs) simply to try to minimize the impact of performing tasks out of sequence. Design work on the thermal protection system originally required 18,750 drawings-by 1981 the required engineering drawings had increased to 25,456 (a 35 percent increase) because of delays and changes. Rockwell sought a “Program Adjustment,” that is more money to compensate for the additional Costs. 53

Wayne Young, whose job was management integration in the Shuttle Program Office at the Johnson Space Center, explained that the shuttle came into being in “an austere budget environment.” NASA had to first look at the budget, and then decide what could be done within that financial framework. Decisions sometimes had to be made on the basis of costs, rather than on the basis of engineering, As costs rose, scheduling and integration became even more critical . 54

51. Minutes, Ad Hoc Shuttle Payload Activities Team, Center Series, Loftus Papers, Box 27, JSC History Office.

52. Dale D. Myers to James C. Fletcher, August 18, 1972, Shuttle Papers, 00743, NASA History Office.

53, Memorandum, August 17, 198 1, Rockwell Papers-Shuttle Series, JSC History Office.

54. Interview, Henry C. Dethloff with Wayne Young, Deputy Administrator, Johnson Space Center, July 18,1990.


The orbiter Columbia is seen in the final approach prior to landing on Rogers Drylake Runway 23 at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center April 14, 1981. (NASA photo no. 81-H-342).

In 1977 the fuselage of orbiter 101, designated the Enterprise (which would not be the first shuttle to be launched), had been completed and the Columbia neared completion. Congress authorized, before the end of the decade, the construction of five shuttles (including the Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis) estimated at a cost of $550 to $600 million each. Each finally exceeded $1 billion. During the year, NASA conducted five unpowered glide tests by dropping the craft from a Boeing 747. Rockwell’s Rocketdyne Division began testing the Space Shuttle main engine at the National Space Testing Laboratory (formerly the Mississippi Test Facility, and soon to be Stennis Space Center) in March. Tests on the engine terminated after 70 seconds when a fire erupted in the engine causing damage to the A-1 test stand. Rockwell and NASA engineers conducted over 650 test firings between 1977 and 1980 before the first shuttle flight in 1981. 55 The problems most often encountered had to do with the use of conventional valves and fittings in a very unconventional 6.5 million pound thrust hydrogen-oxygen engine.

By the time the Columbia fired its engines on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on April 12, 1981, the Space Shuttle already had experienced a long and

55. NSTL News Release, March 25,1977; November 4,1979; December 4,1980; and see Neil McAleer, The Omni Space Almanac (New York, NY: World Almanac, 1987), pp. 72-91.


difficult history. Simply being there, on the launch pad, was something of a triumph. The greater achievement lay ahead. The three main shuttle engines fired in rapid sequence. Then the twin solid rocket boosters, each generating 2.65 million pounds of thrust, ignited. Columbia lifted off. just short of leaving the Earth’s gravitational pull, the solid rocket boosters burned out, separated from the orbiter, and parachuted into the Atlantic where they were retrieved. The shuttle main engines continued to burn, taking fuel from the external tank. The main shuttle engine cut off, and the external tank detached and disintegrated as it reentered the atmosphere. The Columbia then fired its two orbital maneuvering system engines. The first burn put it into orbit, a second bum stabilized the circular orbit about the earth. Twelve minutes had elapsed since launch. 56

The shuttle carried mission commander John W. Young, a Georgia Tech aeronautical engineer and a space veteran who made his first space flight aboard Gemini 3, and then was command module pilot for Apollo 10 and commander of the Apollo 16 flight. Robert L. Crippin, a native of Beaumont, Texas, and graduate of the University of Texas, had come into the astronaut training program by way of an aborted Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program. During the launch his heartbeat rose from 60 to 130 per minute. He described it as “one fantastic ride!” 57

The Columbia changed orbits, and for most of the flight flew in a tail-forward upsidedown position, relative to the Earth, giving the crew a better view of Earth and its horizon. Young and Crippin checked all systems, the computers, navigational jet thrusters, and huge cargo bay doors. The ship began the return at 12:22 EST on April 14. Young and Crippin fired the orbital maneuvering rockets for two minutes and twenty-seven seconds to reduce their speed to less than the orbital velocity of 17,500 miles per hour. Gravity would do the rest. They began an hour-long descent. They fired their attitude control thrusters to turn Columbia right side up and nose forward. Thrusters were fired again to keep the nose up so that the thermal protective tiles could absorb the heat of reentry. The Columbia lost speed as its altitude dropped, and over Rogers Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert, Crippen and Young banked the ship sharply, looped back into a landing pattern, and touched down at a speed of 215 miles per hour, about twice that of a commercial airliner. “The touchdown marked the successful conclusion of STS-1, 2 days, six hours, twenty minutes and fifty-two seconds after lift-off from Florida.” President Ronald Reagan greeted the returning crewmen, “Today our friends and adversaries are reminded that we are a free people capable of great deeds. We are a free people in search of progress for mankind.” 58 That search for progress, in the form of a reusable spacecraft, involved not only NASA, and the industries and astronauts who were identified as the recipients of the 1981 Collier Trophy, but reflected more fully the past and present energies, initiatives, technologies, aspirations, and capital investments of the American people.

56. See Michael Collins, Liftoff: The Story of America’s Adventure in Space (New York, NY. NASA, Grove Press, 1988), pp. 201-22; NASA, Mission Report, MR-001.

57. NASA, Mission Report, MR-001.

58. Ibid.

The History of the Space Shuttle – The Atlantic

The History of the Space Shuttle

From its first launch 30 years ago to its final mission scheduled for next Friday, NASA’s Space Shuttle program has seen moments of dizzying inspiration and of crushing disappointment. When next week’s launch is complete, the program will have sent up 135 missions, ferrying more than 350 humans and thousands of tons of material and equipment into low Earth orbit. The missions have been risky, the engineering complex, the hazards extreme. Indeed, over the years 14 shuttle astronauts lost their lives. As we near the end of the program, let’s look back at the past few decades of shuttle history.

Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off from Kennedy Space Center, on April 12, 1981. Commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen were onboard STS-1, the first orbital flight of the Space Shuttle program. #

While on a visit to watch the launch of Apollo 16 on April 15, 1972, Russian Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (left) listens as Kennedy Space Center Director Dr. Kurt H. Debus explains the space shuttle program. In the right foreground is a model of one the proposed Space Shuttle ship and rocket concepts. #

A scale model of the proposed Space Shuttle wing configuration. Photo taken on March 28, 1975. #

This November 6, 1975 photo shows a scale model of the Space Shuttle attached to a 747 carrier, inside NASA’s 7 x 10 wind tunnel. #

Part of the crew of the television series Star Trek attend the first showing of America’s first Space Shuttle, named Enterprise, in Palmdale, California, on September 17, 1976. From left are Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, DeForest Kelly and James Doohan. #

The inside view of a liquid hydrogen tank designed for the Space Shuttle external tank, viewed on February 1, 1977. At 154 feet long and more than 27 feet in diameter, the external tank is the largest component of the Space Shuttle, the structural backbone of the entire Shuttle system, and is the only part of the vehicle that is not reusable. #

A technician works on sensors installed in the back end of a scale model of the Space Shuttle in NASA’s 10X10 foot wind tunnel, on February 15, 1977. #

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, this space shuttle mock-up, dubbed Pathfinder, is attached to the Mate-Demate Device for at fit-check on October 19, 1978. The mock-up, constructed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, possessed the general dimensions, weight and balance of a real space shuttle. #

The Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise flies free after being released from NASA’s 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft over Rogers Dry Lakebed during the second of five free flights carried out at the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California, on January 1, 1977. A tail cone over the main engine area of Enterprise smoothed out turbulent air flow during flight. It was removed on the two last free flights to accurately check approach and landing characteristics. #

Space Shuttle Columbia arrives at launch complex 39A in preparation for mission STS-1 at Kennedy Space Center, on December 29, 1980. #

Looking aft toward the cargo bay of NASA’s Space Shuttle Orbiter 102 vehicle, Columbia, Astronauts John Young (left) and Robert Crippen preview some of the intravehicular activity expected to take place during the orbiter’s flight test, at Kennedy Space Center October 10, 1980. #

Flight director Charles R. Lewis (left) studies a chart display on his console’s monitor in the mission operations control room (MOCR) in the Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control Center, in April of 1981. #

The two solid rocket boosters are jettisoned from the climbing space shuttle Columbia as a successful launch phase continues for NASA’s first manned space mission since 1975, on April 12, 1981. Astronauts John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen are aboard Columbia. #

The Space Shuttle Columbia on Rogers Dry lakebed at Edwards AFB after landing to complete its first orbital mission on April 14, 1981. Technicians towed the Shuttle back to the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center for post-flight processing and preparation for a return ferry flight atop a modified 747 to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. #

The Space Shuttle Columbia is carried atop a NASA 747 at the Edwards Air Force Base, California, on November 25, 1981. #

Nighttime launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia, on the twenty-fourth mission of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, on January 12, 1986. #

Astronaut Sally Ride, mission specialist on STS-7, monitors control panels from the pilot’s chair on the Flight Deck of the Space Shuttle Challenger in this NASA handout photo dated June 25, 1983. Floating in front of her is a flight procedures notebook. #

The Space Shuttle Enterprise passes through a hillside that has been cut to clear its wingspan, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, on February 1, 1985. The orbiter is en route to Space Launch Complex Six aboard its specially-designed 76-wheel transporter. #

High angle overall view of Space Shuttle Enterprise in launch position on the Space Launch Complex (SLC) #6, during the ready-to-launch checks to verify launch procedures at Vandenberg Air Force Base, on February 1, 1985. #

The space shuttle orbiter Discovery lands on Edwards Air Force Base in California, following completion of the 26th Space Transportation System mission. #

Christa McAuliffe tries out the commander’s seat on the flight deck of a shuttle simulator at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, on September 13, 1985. McAuliffe was scheduled for a space flight on the Space Shuttle Challenger in January, 1986. #

Ice forms on equipment on launch pad 39-B, on January 27, 1986, at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, before the ill-fated launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. #

Spectators in the VIP area at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, watch as the Space Shuttle Challenger lifts from Pad 39-B, on January 28, 1986. #

The Space Shuttle Challenger explodes 73 seconds after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center. The shuttle, carrying a crew of seven, including the first teacher in space, was destroyed, all aboard were killed. #

Spectators at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, react after they witnessed the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. #

The Space Shuttle Columbia (left), slated for mission STS-35, is rolled past the Space Shuttle Atlantis on its way to Pad 39A. Atlantis, slated for mission STS-38, is parked in front of bay three of the Vehicle Assembly Building following its rollback from Pad 39A for repairs to the liquid hydrogen lines. #

A Florida Air National Guard F-15C Eagle aircraft assigned to the 125th Fighter Wing, flies a patrol mission as the Space Shuttle Endeavor launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on December 5, 2001. #

Fish-eye view of the Space Shuttle Atlantis as seen from the Russian Mir space station during the STS-71 mission on June 29, 1995. #

Cosmonaut Valeriy V. Polyakov, who boarded Russia’s Mir space station on January 8, 1994, looks out Mir’s window during rendezvous operations with the Space Shuttle Discovery. #

Mission Specialist Bruce McCandless II, is seen further away from the confines and safety of the Space Shuttle Challenger than any previous astronaut has ever been from an orbiter in this February 12, 1984 photo. #

A modified Space Shuttle Main Engine is static fired at Marshall Space Flight Center‘s Technology Test Bed, in Huntsville, Alabama, on December 22, 1993. #

Astronaut Joseph R. Tanner, STS-82 mission specialist, is backdropped against Earth’s limb and a sunburst effect in this 35mm frame exposed by astronaut Gregory J. Harbaugh, his extravehicular activity (EVA) crew mate, on February 16, 1997. The two were making their second space walk and the fourth one of five for the STS-82 crew, in order to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). #

The fist two components of the International Space Station are joined together on December 6, 1998. The Russian-built FGB, also called Zarya, nears the Space Shuttle Endeavour and the U.S.-built Node 1, also called Unity (foreground). #

During the first Gulf War, in April of 1991, black smoke pours from burning oil wells in the Kuwaiti desert, seen from Earth orbit by an astronaut onboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis during mission STS-37. The Iraqi army set fire to the oil wells in the region as they withdrew from their occupation of that country. #

Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-134) makes its final landing at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 1, 2011. #

Billows of smoke and steam infused with the fiery light from Space Shuttle Endeavour’s launch on the STS-127 mission fill NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A in July of 2009. #

Space shuttle external tank ET-118, which flew on the STS-115 mission in September 2006, was photographed by astronauts aboard the shuttle about 21 minutes after lift off. The photo was taken with a hand-held camera when the tank was about 75 miles above Earth, traveling at slightly more than 17,000 mph. #

The space shuttle twin solid rocket boosters separate from the orbiter and external tank at an altitude of approximately 24 miles. They descend on parachutes and land in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast, where they are recovered by ships, returned to land, and refurbished for reuse. #

Though astronauts and cosmonauts often encounter striking scenes of Earth’s limb, this very unique image, part of a series over Earth’s colorful horizon, has the added feature of a silhouette of the space shuttle Endeavour. The image was photographed by an Expedition 22 crew member prior to STS-130 rendezvous and docking operations with the International Space Station on February 9, 2010. The orange layer is the troposphere, where all of the weather and clouds which we typically watch and experience are generated and contained. This orange layer gives way to the whitish Stratosphere and then into the Mesosphere. #

NASA space shuttle Columbia hitched a ride on a special 747 carrier aircraft for the flight from Palmdale, California, to Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on March 1, 2001. #

The high temperatures which were to be encountered by the Space Shuttle were simulated in the tunnels at Langley in this 1975 test of the thermal insulation materials which were used on the orbiter. #

While fire-rescue personnel prepare evacuation litters, two stand-in “astronauts” prepare to use an exit slide from a Shuttle mockup during a rescue training exercise in Palmdale, California, on April 16, 2005. #

The Space Shuttle Challenger moves through the fog on its way down the crawler way en route to Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in this NASA handout photo dated November 30, 1982. #

Donnie McBurney (left) and Chris Welch, both of Merrit Island, Florida, watch from atop their body boards as the space shuttle Discovery lifts off from Cape Canaveral, October 29, on mission STS-95. John Glenn returned to space aboard Discovery for the first time in 36 years. #

After its second servicing mission, the Hubble Space Telescope begins its separation from the Space Shuttle Discovery on February 19, 1997. #

This photo provided by NASA taken from the ground using a telescope with a solar filter shows the NASA space shuttle Atlantis in silhouette during solar transit, Tuesday, May 12, 2009, from Florida. #

In this image from a NASA video, the silhouette of Space Shuttle Columbia Commander for mission STS-80, Kenneth Cockrall, is visible against the front windows of the Space Shuttle during reentry on December 7, 1996. The orange glow in the window is from ionizing atoms in the atmosphere caused by the friction of air against the Shuttle’s surface during reentry. #

Space Shuttle Discovery lands in the Mojave Desert on September 11, 2009 at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base near Mojave, California. #

The Space Shuttle Endeavour rests atop NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft in the Mate-Demate Device (MDD) at the Ames-Dryden Flight Research Facility, Edwards, California, shortly before being ferried back to the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. #

The Space Shuttle Discovery cuts a bright swath through the early-morning darkness as it lifts off from Launch Pad 39A on a scheduled 10-day flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope. #

Near the end of the mission, the crew aboard space shuttle Discovery was able to document the beginning of the second day of activity of the Rabaul volcano, on the east end of New Britain. On the morning of Sept. 19, 1994, two volcanic cones on the opposite sides of the 6-kilometer sea crater had begun to erupt with very little warning. Discovery flew just east of the eruption roughly 24 hours after it started and near the peak of its activity. #

A view photographed from the International Space Station in 2007 shows the Space Shuttle Atlantis above the Earth, as the two spacecraft were nearing their link-up in Earth orbit. #

Following a catastrophic failure during re-entry, debris from the space shuttle Columbia streaks across the Texas sky on Saturday morning, February 1, 2003. The orbiter and all seven crew members were lost. #

A floor grid is marked with a growing number of pieces of Columbia debris in this NASA handout photo dated March 13, 2003. The Columbia Reconstruction Project Team attempted to reconstruct the orbiter as part of the investigation into the accident that caused the destruction of Columbia and loss of its crew as it returned to Earth on mission STS-107. #

Rollout of space shuttle Discovery is slow-going due to the onset of lightning in the area of Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on August 4, 2009. The rollout was in preparation for launch on the STS-128 mission to the International Space Station. #

New Zealand in the background, astronaut Robert L. Curbeam Jr. (left) and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Christer Fuglesang, both STS-116 mission specialists, participate in the mission’s first of three planned sessions of extravehicular activity (EVA) as construction continues on the International Space Station on December 12, 2006. #

Xenon lights help lead space shuttle Endeavour home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Endeavour landed for the final time on the Shuttle Landing Facility’s Runway 15, marking the 24th night landing of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. #

The docked space shuttle Endeavour, backdropped by a nighttime view of Earth and a starry sky are featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 28 crew member on the International Space Station, on May 28, 2011. #

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the STS-133 crew takes a break from a simulated launch countdown to ham it up on the 195-foot level of Launch Pad 39A. From left are, Pilot Eric Boe, Mission Specialist Michael Barratt, Commander Steve Lindsey, and Mission Specialists Tim Kopra, Nicole Stott, and Alvin Drew. #

Shock wave condensation collars, backlit by the sun, occurred during the launch of Atlantis on STS-106, on September 8, 2001. The phenomenon was captured on an engineering 35mm motion picture film, and one frame was digitized to make this still image. Although the primary effect is created by the Orbiter forward fuselage, secondary effects can be seen on the SRB forward skirt, Orbiter vertical stabilizer and wing trailing edges. #

The International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour, fly at an altitude of approximately 220 miles. This May 23, 2011 photo was taken by Expedition 27 crew member Paolo Nespoli from the Soyuz TMA-20 following its undocking. The pictures taken by Nespoli are the first taken of a shuttle docked to the International Space Station from the perspective of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. #

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The Space Shuttle’s First Crisis, A – S Interview, Air – Space Magazine

The Space Shuttle’s First Crisis

A new book details the drama behind the launch of the world’s first reusable spaceship.

Rowland White has written four books about aerospace history. His latest is Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Men Who Flew Her. White’s book provides a detailed account of STS-1, the first space shuttle mission to reach orbit. From the moment the mission began, however, things went wrong, and White chronicles the many anxious moments that followed until images secretly taken by reconnaissance satellites proved that Columbia and her two-man crew could land safely. White spoke with senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi in January.

From This Story

Air & Space: Why did you decide to write this book?

Rowland White: It was just a fantastic flying story—the last great adventure of NASA’s Apollo generation—that I felt hadn’t properly been brought to life before. But as it took shape, something more emerged: an incredible race-against-time drama between NASA and the Department of Defense.

Out of the many qualified candidates in NASA’s astronaut corps, why do you think John Young and Bob Crippen were chosen for STS-1?

Moonwalker John Young was NASA’s most storied space traveler: the head of the astronaut office with a long record of space firsts to his name, including the first manned Gemini flight alongside Gus Grissom. Young was the obvious choice as commander. And no one knew more about the shuttle’s complex systems and avionics than Bob Crippen. With such complimentary skills and experience, together Young and Crippen were the perfect crew.

What caused Columbia to lose 16 of its thermal tiles during the launch of STS-1?

Amazingly, it was sound—albeit sound at a volume that would have been capable of killing anyone standing within 800 feet of it. For all the testing, modeling, and simulation prior to the first flight, much remained unknown. And when the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters fired, a sonic shock wave rebounded off the pad and struck Columbia with a force 10 times greater than what had been expected based on 1/15-scale tests.

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This story is a selection from the April-May issue of Air & Space magazine

Was there any consideration before the flight of supplying Crippen and Young with a tile repair kit?

Plenty. A year before the first flight, NASA contracted with Martin Marietta to develop an on-orbit tile-repair kit, and even announced that Columbia would be carrying it during the first flight. It consisted of a jet pack, a work-station-like window cleaner’s cradle, and a caulking gun. Crippen spent time in a zero-G simulator and on board NASA’s [reduced-gravity aircraft] training to use it. It was so unwieldy that he quickly became convinced that any effort to use it would likely only make things worse and so the decision was taken to leave it behind.

How essential was Gene Kranz in determining that Columbia’s crew would not be in danger during reentry? Was Kranz’ experience with crisis important in analyzing the situation with Columbia?

What’s interesting is the way Kranz—as he was during the Apollo 13 emergency—once again became a kind of lightning rod for everyone’s concerns. More than anyone else, he was the public face of NASA during the STS-1 press conferences, but as reassuring a presence as he was, his freedom for maneuver was limited. Despite persistent questioning from reporters, he wasn’t able to share the classified details of what DoD was doing in support of Columbia’s mission.

Was there a harmonious working relationship between NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office in getting the KH-11 images of Columbia?

Where it mattered, certainly, but it might be more accurate to talk about the relationship between NASA and the Air Force. Remember that in 1981, the very existence of the NRO [National Reconnaissance Office] was still classified. A key figure in all of this was Hans Mark. A keen supporter of the space shuttle, he’d been director of NASA’s Ames Research Center when the shuttle program was first announced before becoming director of the NRO in 1977. He was one of just a handful people in mission control during STS-1 who understood the capabilities of the NRO’s KH-11 satellites.

Do you get the impression that Young and Crippen’s enjoyment of the mission was overshadowed by the loss of the tiles and the initial uncertainty about Columbia’s structural soundness? To some extent, did the crew’s frequent adjustments to Columbia’s flight path (to synchronize with orbits of the reconnaissance satellites) infringe on their other mission activities?

On occasions you can actually hear the stress in their voices as they struggle to make the changes to the flight plan. Or when mistakes were made. The path of a spacecraft on orbit is relentless. You can’t slow down. You can’t buy time. If Young and Crippen—and indeed mission control—failed to ensure that Columbia was facing in exactly the right direction, at exactly the right time, then any chance for the Air Force controllers to capture the photographs they needed would be gone for good. And with them any possibility of properly assessing the risk to the shuttle.

Rowland White has written four books about aviation history. (Courtesy of Rowland White)

Was there anything that should have been learned from STS-1 that might have prevented the loss of Columbia in 2003?

Yes, sadly, and it’s simply that when there was any doubt at all about the condition of the orbiter, NASA should have asked DoD for help. As we know from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, the agency nearly did. But a request made for DoD imagery of Columbia was rescinded by Linda Ham, the chair of the Mission Management Team, after formal procedures were allowed to smother concerns from engineers at the launch site.

Anything you’d like to add?

The space shuttle was the most remarkable flying machine ever built. And yet too often the shuttle story has been characterized either by a sort of unimpressed familiarity or by tragedy. I hope that, through bringing to life the drama and excitement of Columbia’s first flight, Into the Black helps redress the balance a bit, and helps ensure that the courageous and capable astronauts that flew the shuttle during those audacious early test flights take their rightful place alongside the pioneers of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs in the public’s imagination.

About Diane Tedeschi

Diane Tedeschi is a Senior Associate Editor at Air & Space.

A repeat of the space shuttle s bold test flight? NASA considers crew aboard first SLS mission, The Planetary Society

A repeat of the space shuttle’s bold test flight? NASA considers crew aboard first SLS mission

Last month, NASA announced it was considering flying astronauts on the first flight of the Space Launch System.

It was an eyebrow-raising proclamation. Since the unveiling of the mega-rocket’s design in 2011, the agency has always planned on having the first flight blast an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to the Moon. Originally, this was supposed to happen at the end of 2017, but it has since slipped to late 2018.

Adding crew to the mission could be risky. SLS is a brand-new rocket, and Orion has only flown once—in a barebones configuration atop a different rocket.

NASA has only flown astronauts on a launch vehicle’s maiden mission once, when John Young and Bob Crippen took space shuttle Columbia on the boldest test flight in history.

Could we see a repeat of Columbia’s daring mission? How risky would that be, and why consider changing the plan at all?

Insert crew here?

The motivation

NASA has been quick to note that it is only assessing the feasibility of adding astronauts to the first SLS flight—until then, it is remaining neutral on the idea.

During a press call with reporters on Feb. 24, agency officials said the assessment was requested by the Trump administration.

“We’ve had early discussions with the transition team, both before the inauguration and after, about accelerating our crew capability,” said Bill Hill, the deputy associate administrator for NASA’s exploration systems division. Hill’s boss, associate administrator William Gerstenmaier, said the request came from “Robert (Lightfoot) and the new administration.” Lightfoot is NASA’s acting administrator. He’s a civil servant, not a political appointee—though he still reports to the White House.

Why, exactly, the Trump administration or its transition team requested the study is unclear, but most sources I spoke with for this article cited two plausible reasons.

Firstly, as it stands, no NASA astronauts will fly beyond low-Earth orbit during President Trump’s first term, since the second SLS flight, which will carry crew, is not scheduled to occur until at least 2021. There is a chance SpaceX could send two tourists around the Moon during Trump’s first term; right now, that’s scheduled for 2018, but the date will likely slip.

NASA said it will only considering adding a crew to the first SLS flight if the mission would be ready to fly in 2019—otherwise, they’ll stick with the current plan. But if there indeed is a way to make the flight happen in 2019, it could provide a high-visibility achievement for President Trump.

A second theory centers on pressure to get SLS and Orion flying astronauts as quickly as possible.

Despite various media reports predicting the Trump administration might ditch SLS and Orion in favor of vehicles from other firms like SpaceX, the Trump administration’s 2018 budget blueprint gave no indication of an impending large-scale shift for NASA. In fact, the opposite happened: SLS, Orion and the vehicles’ associated ground systems received a 23 percent funding increase over President Obama’s 2017 budget request.

Additionally, Trump recently signed a new NASA authorization bill, backed with overwhelming House and Senate support, that advocates avoiding major program changes.

Nevertheless, one industry analyst I spoke with predicted that until SLS and Orion are fully operational, they remain vulnerable. Getting the vehicles flying crews quickly could cement their futures and ward off any remaining threats from other would-be commercial providers.

No matter the motivation, Matthew Hersch, an assistant professor and historian of technology at Harvard University, doesn’t think it’s worth the risk.

“The only reason to hurry up and put people on there is to try and score a short-term political victory,” he told me. “That’s the kind of political pressure that gets people killed.”

Hersch, the author of “Inventing the American Astronaut,” as well as an upcoming book on the origins of the space shuttle program, said he was concerned NASA’s fortunes were being tied to “a series of elaborate stunts.”

“It actually sounds very Soviet, much the way competing design bureaus in the Soviet Union used to act in an effort to attract attention for their respective science programs,” he said.

The boldest test flight in history

The precedent

On April 12, 1981, astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen climbed aboard space shuttle Columbia and blasted off on a 2-day shakedown cruise. Beyond a series of glide tests, the shuttle had never flown.

I contacted Crippen to ask about the mission, and get his perspective on the risks involved in flying astronauts on a new vehicle. He declined to be interviewed, saying he preferred to let NASA conduct its feasibility study first. He did, however, tell me he thought flying SLS and Orion without a crew first seemed like “a good idea.”

Prior to Columbia, NASA flew its rockets without people first for a very simple reason: they used to blow up a lot more.

The first two Mercury flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom in 1961 were brief suborbital jaunts atop the Army’s Redstone booster. For John Glenn’s orbital flight, NASA switched to the more powerful Atlas rocket. The very first time Glenn showed up to watch an Atlas test flight, the mission ended in disaster shortly after liftoff.

“That wasn’t a confidence builder,” Glenn later said.

By the time the shuttle flew, NASA had a better track record, and computer simulations were able to more accurately predict a vehicle’s performance, giving engineers a higher certainty things would go right on launch day.

Mike Neufeld, a senior curator in the space history department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, said it was decided relatively early in the shuttle’s development cycle that a pilot would have to be in the cockpit to fly the shuttle during landing. And there was no shortage of astronauts ready to give it a try.

“NASA picked test pilots for Mercury, and soon after they arrived, they said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to just be passengers on these things,'” he told me. “So that’s really embedded in the history of the U.S. human spaceflight program.”

This was a stark contrast, he said, with the Soviet Union’s space program.

“The first class of cosmonauts were these 25-year-old kids who just ordinary jet pilots taken from the Soviet Air Force,” said Neufeld. Soviet spacecraft were highly automated, and this mentality extended all the way to Buran, the legendary Soviet shuttle clone that only made a single test flight—an automated one.

NASA astronauts continue to play a large role in the development and operations of their spacecraft. But since the shuttle days, the agency has returned to its automated roots. Orion can fly without a crew; as can upcoming commercial vehicles like Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Heritage technologies

If NASA does put a crew on the first SLS mission, it would probably be a lot safer than Columbia’s flight.

Most SLS components are shuttle-derived. The core stage is essentially a shuttle external fuel tank with four shuttle main engines mounted at the bottom. All four of the engines slated for the first SLS flight have already carried shuttles into space. The SLS side-mounted solid rocket boosters are effectively shuttle boosters with extra propellant segments.

Orion has already flown once. In December 2014, a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket blasted an Orion capsule to an altitude of 5,800 kilometers, subjecting it to a high-velocity atmospheric reentry meant to simulate a lunar return. Orion’s European-built service module is based on the Automated Transfer Vehicle, which is used by the European Space Agency to ferry cargo to the International Space Station.

The biggest question mark may be the rocket’s upper stage.

The first SLS flight will use a Delta IV upper stage—the same used for the 2014 Orion test flight—called the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, or, ICPS.

The second SLS flight—meant to be the first crewed flight, no earlier than 2021—will use the under-construction Exploration Upper Stage, or EUS.

Both stages use Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10 engines. But the ICPS only has one engine; the EUS will have four.

This presents NASA with a bit of a paradox: the ICPS has flown; the EUS has not. But the ICPS was never meant to carry humans, whereas the EUS is being built with humans in mind from the start. Deciding which coniguration is safer, then, is hard to judge. (In 2015, NASA said the ICPS could be human-rated at a cost of $150 million.)

If anything goes wrong during the initial climb to orbit, Orion is equipped with a traditional escape tower that would pull the capsule away from SLS. The space shuttle, on the other hand, relied on a risky return-to-launch-site abort scenario that involved ditching the solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank, turning the shuttle around, and gliding back to Kennedy Space Center.

“There’s a very limited set of circumstances in which that would have worked,” Neufeld said. “And obviously, the orbiter had to stay intact.”

NASA actually considered testing this abort mode on Columbia’s first flight, before ultimately deciding flying all the way to orbit was safer.

Columbia STS-1 booster separation

Human spaceflight: still dangerous

If NASA and the Trump administration do indeed decide to put a crew on the first SLS flight, they probably won’t have a hard time finding astronauts to volunteer for the mission.

When Columbia returned to Earth on April 14, 1981, the New York Times ran a front-page photo of the shuttle approaching the runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. One story subhead declared “FLIERS EMERGE ELATED.”

Alex McCool, a retired NASA propulsion expert who worked on everything from Redstone rockets to shuttle engines, was there in the desert that day. McCool, now an emeritus docent at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, recently described to me what he remembered about the landing.

“Here’s John Young. He gets out of the orbiter, walks all around it, looking underneath, jumping up and down—he was excited,” McCool said. “Of course, we were too. Seeing that thing, hearing the sonic booms—after they landed, we were all on a high.”

But despite Young and Crippen’s bravado, NASA still lost two orbiters and 14 crewmembers during the 30-year space shuttle program.

The problems that ultimately doomed Challenger and Columbia were present from the start. Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center were worried about solid rocket booster joints as early as 1977. And damage to the shuttle’s thermal protection system occurred on multiple flights—most severely during STS-27 in 1988.

It’s a grim reality of spaceflight: test flights, whether crewed or uncrewed, do not eliminate the possibility that humans might be killed.

“On balance,” Neufeld said, “All we can really say is that traveling into space is dangerous, and will remain so for some time.”

Columbia: First Shuttle in Space, Space

Columbia: First Shuttle in Space

Columbia was the first shuttle to reach space, in 1981. Columbia carried dozens of astronauts into space during the next two decades, reaching several milestones. Columbia also underwent upgrades as technology advanced.

However, the shuttle and a seven-member crew were lost over Texas when Columbia burned up during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. Columbia’s loss prompted NASA to do extra safety checks in orbit for all future missions.

Columbia at a glance

  • First flight: STS-1 (April 12-14, 1981)
  • Last flight: STS-107 (Jan. 16, 2003 – Feb. 1, 2003)
  • Number of missions: 28
  • Time in space: 300 days, 17 hours, 40 minutes, 22 seconds (Source: CBS)
  • Notable: Had the first flight of space shuttle program. Its last flight, STS-107, ended catastrophically and killed seven crew members.

Decades of development

Discussions on developing a reusable spacecraft began in earnest in 1966, when NASA was looking to figure out what programs would come after Apollo. While NASA was tasked with beginning the work, development was held off for years by budgetary constraints, according to NASA history documents.

Work resumed more seriously when the first landing on the moon was imminent, in 1969. At that time, then-President Richard Nixon appointed a Space Task Group to look at future space options, and in subsequent years NASA began awarding design contracts for shuttle ideas.

Some compromises were made in the design in response to budgetary constraints and input from the military, which was expected to be a major customer of the shuttle. For example, the size of the cargo bay was increased to accommodate large military satellites. Also, it was decided to make the shuttle only partially reusable instead of fully reusable to save on development costs, although critics noted this would increase the costs of individual flights.

Construction began on a prototype on Jun 4, 1974. That spacecraft was designated Enterprise. Its purpose was to perform test flights and landings. It never flew into outer space. Construction on Columbia began on March 27, 1975. The name Columbia has several origins:

  • Columbia is a historic poetic name for the United States.
  • Columbia is a female symbol for the United States.
  • It was part of the name of an explorer ship, Columbia Rediviva, which made the first American circumnavigation of the globe in 1790.
  • It was the name of the command module of Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing.

Milestones of flight

Columbia’s first flight took place on April 12, 1981. The shuttle program was officially referred to as the Space Transportation System (STS), so this flight was STS-1. The mission had a two-person crew: the commander, John Young, a veteran of Gemini and Apollo, and the pilot, Bob Crippen. The objective was to make sure that Columbia worked well in space.

Media attention in particular focused on the new system of tiles covering the shuttle, which NASA had struggled with in early days, according to a NASA history on developing the space shuttle. Happily, Columbia came back safely. Several more test flights ran between 1981 and 1982. This included perhaps the most dramatic landing of the shuttle program, STS-3.

An “autoland” system malfunctioned before landing on STS-3; the crew took over (as planned) just before landing, but the shuttle touched the runway faster than normal. After landing, Columbia’s nose pitched up unexpectedly due to a software problem, according to commander Jack Lousma’s oral history with NASA; it looked as though the shuttle was bobbing on the runway.

The first operational flight for Columbia was STS-5 in November 1982. New shuttle Challenger took on the next three flights, and then Columbia flew once more in November 1983, carrying the Spacelab experiment module for the first time as well as the first European Space Agency astronaut.

Columbia was then shelved for major upgrades (including adding heads-up displays) before flying on just one mission in 1986; that mission carried Democrat Bill Nelson on board, among the astronauts. Shuttle operations were interrupted by Challenger’s demise in January 1986. It wouldn’t be until 1989 that Columbia flew again.

Science and telescope operations

Columbia flew 28 missions in its lifetime, logging more than 300 days in space. In its earliest days it participated in repairing and deploying satellites and telescopes, but as NASA’s priorities changed to science, Columbia flew several productive science missions in the 1990s and 2000s.

Over the years it flew several microgravity laboratory missions and did a tethered satellite system experiment, among other things.

In 1999 and 2002, though, Columbia shifted operations back into telescope operations. STS-93 was scheduled to fly on July 20, 1999, to send the Chandra X-Ray Observatory into space.

A suspected hydrogen problem scrubbed the initial launch only seven seconds before liftoff, but upon further examination NASA determined that the high readings were false.

Columbia lifted off on July 23, 1999, but its orbit was seven miles shallower than planned due to a slightly early main engine cutoff. Adjustments in orbit were necessary to bring Columbia to the correct altitude. The crew successfully let go of Chandra during the mission.

Columbia’s 2002 mission consisted of telescope repair, as the STS-109 crew did servicing on the Hubble Space Telescope. Over five spacewalks, several astronaut crew members replaced an aging power control unit, removed and installed solar arrays and did science instrument upgrades. Servicing time hit a record, at the time, of 35 hours and 55 minutes.

This would be Columbia’s next-to-last mission in orbit, although nobody knew it at the time.

This image of the STS-107 shuttle Columbia crew in orbit was recovered from wreckage inside an undeveloped film canister. The shirt colors indicate their mission shifts. From left (bottom row): Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick Husband, commander; Laurel Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. From left (top row) are astronauts David Brown, mission specialist; William McCool, pilot; and Michael Anderson, payload commander. Ramon represents the Israeli Space Agency. (Image credit: NASA/JSC)

Breakup over Texas

Columbia’s last flight was STS-107, a nearly 16-day research mission focusing on scientific experiments. The crew included the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, and the first Indian-born woman in space, Kalpana Chawla, was.

As the shuttle went through the final minutes of its re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, NASA lost contact with the shuttle over Texas. Controllers spent several minutes trying to hail the shuttle as the families of the astronauts waited at the expected landing site at the Kennedy Space Center.

As the communications blackout lengthened, and video footage emerged of a large flying object breaking into pieces, it became clear that the crew had not survived.

According to a crew survival report released by NASA in 2008, the crew likely lived through the initial breakup but fell unconscious quickly as the cabin depressurized. They died as the shuttle broke up around them. Their remains were retrieved, identified through DNA and returned to the families.

NASA, government officials and an army of volunteers spent months after the breakup retrieving pieces and crew remains from the ground. Although reliable reports came in spotting debris in Utah, Nevada and New Mexico, the westernmost part of the debris was found near Littlefield, Texas. Thousands of pieces were retrieved in Texas and Louisiana.

Finding the cause

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board was formed to look at the causes of the breakup and to prevent it from happening again. Harold W. Gehman Jr., former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, chaired the board. It included participation from a dozen people, including NASA officials and former astronaut Sally Ride, who was also a member of Challenger’s investigation.

The board concluded that a piece of foam from Columbia’s external tank hit the shuttle during launch and caused a fatal breach in Columbia’s wing. This “foam debris” problem was well-known and documented in the years before Columbia’s launch, but over time NASA grew to accept it as part of spaceflight. The board recommended this problem be addressed.

NASA made changes to the external tank as well as put in new safety procedures for shuttle missions. Among them, on every spaceflight, the crew was required to spend several hours scanning the shuttle’s bottom for broken tiles.

Forever Remembered

The agency still remembers Columbia, as well as past crews lost in the pursuit of spaceflight, on an annual Day of Remembrance every January. Several memorials have been dedicated to the crew as well. For example, seven asteroids were named after the seven crew members of STS-107, and seven Inukshuks — stone cairns that resemble people — were placed at sites at the NASA Haughton-Mars Project on Devon Island, in Canada’s arctic.

Visitors to the Kennedy Space Center can view debris from the Columbia mission (as well as Challenger) at an exhibit called “Forever Remembered,” which opened in 2015. The debris is on display at the visitor’s center and shows window frames from Columbia, as well as personal artifacts from the astronauts. The families of the astronauts collaborated on creating the exhibit.

Meanwhile, some of the experiments from Columbia’s last flight returned useful data. This included a set of roundworms (Caenorhabditis elegans) that survived re-entry and successfully reproduced. Some of the descendants flew in space aboard space shuttle Endeavour in May 2011.