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.

1950s
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’.

Mid-1960s
Several studies of reusable spaceplane designs.

1969
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.

1972
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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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.

John Young, Who Led First Space Shuttle Mission, Dies at 87 – The New York Times

John Young, Who Led First Space Shuttle Mission, Dies at 87

John W. Young, who walked on the moon, commanded the first space shuttle mission and became the first person to fly in space six times, died on Friday at his home in Houston. He was 87.

His death was announced by the acting administrator of NASA, Robert Lightfoot, who said the cause was complications of pneumonia.

Mr. Young joined NASA in the early years of manned spaceflight and was still flying, at age 53, in the era of space shuttles. He was the only astronaut to fly in the Gemini, Apollo and shuttle programs. He was also chief of NASA’s astronauts office for 13 years and a leading executive at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

When he was honored by the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum upon retiring from NASA in December 2004, after 42 years with the agency, Mr. Young played down his accomplishments. “Anybody could have done it,’’ he told The Orlando Sentinel. “You’ve just got to hang in there.”

But Robert Crippen, who flew with Mr. Young on the first space shuttle flight, called him an inspiration to the astronauts who followed him, remarking, “If they have a hero, that hero is John Young.”

In addition to his versatility in flying all manner of spacecraft, Mr. Young was considered a meticulous engineer in troubleshooting technical problems during the preparation for his missions and other spaceflights, and he remained with NASA when many an astronaut headed for the business world.

As Mr. Crippen put it: “It’s rare when an individual comes along that actually personifies his chosen profession, but rare is what John Young is.”

After serving as a Navy test pilot, Mr. Young joined NASA in 1962 at the outset of the Gemini program, a bridge between the missions of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and the Apollo program, which sent men to the moon.

Mr. Young flew twice in Gemini spaceships, flew on the Apollo mission that preceded Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the lunar surface and later drove a rover vehicle through the moon’s highlands. He closed out his explorations of space by flying on two shuttle missions.

Mr. Young had a mischievous side and something of a rebellious streak. He smuggled a corned beef sandwich aboard Gemini 3 to the consternation of NASA officials, who feared that crumbs could have damaged the spacecraft’s systems, though that did not happen.

On his flight to the moon, he complained graphically to his fellow crewmen about his flatulence, evidently caused by the potassium-fortified orange juice he was required to drink. He thought he was speaking on a closed radio circuit, but his microphone was open, and all the world heard it.

While brainstorming technical problems in preparation for missions, Mr. Young often displayed an easy and seemingly casual manner.

“He drawled his way through conversation and gave the impression he was still the country boy who grew up in Orlando, Florida, back when it was mostly farmland,” Andrew Chaikin wrote in “A Man on the Moon” (1994).

“Some people saw the country-boy bit as an act; it wasn’t,” Mr. Chaikin continued. “It was just John’s way of getting the people around him to think a little harder about the problem. Inside Young was an unwavering determination, an overriding sense of responsibility — to the space country, to the program, to his crew — and an almost childlike sense of wonder at the universe.”

John Watts Young was born on Sept. 24, 1930, in San Francisco, a son of William Young, a civil engineer, and the former Wanda Howland. His father once recalled that as a boy he would “draw pictures of airplanes and rockets.”

Mr. Young, who grew up in Orlando, Fla., went on to Georgia Tech, receiving a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1952. He entered the Navy after graduating and flew fighters before becoming a test pilot.

When President John F. Kennedy proposed landing a man on the moon in a nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress in May 1961, Mr. Young was watching on a small black-and-white television set at the Naval Air Test Center in Florida. He was enthralled by the challenge and joined NASA in September 1962 as one of nine pilots selected for the Gemini program.

In March 1965, Mr. Young flew in Gemini 3, the first manned mission of that program, with Virgil Grissom (who was known as Gus), who fired rockets to carry out the first manual change of orbit in a spacecraft.

In July 1966, Mr. Young commanded Gemini 10, flying with Michael Collins, in the first dual-rendezvous spaceflight. Their craft docked with an Agena target vehicle while in orbit, then unlocked and came within inches of another Agena, a prelude to the maneuvering that would be required on a mission to the moon.

On his third flight, in May 1969, two months before the first moonwalk, Mr. Young was the command module pilot of Apollo 10, orbiting the moon while Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan orbited below him in the lunar module, tracking proposed landing sites.

While commanding the Apollo 16 mission in April 1972, Mr. Young, together with Charles Duke, drove the lunar rover vehicle through the previously unexplored highlands of the moon, scooped up more than 200 pounds of rocks, then returned to the command craft, piloted in orbit by Thomas Mattingly.

Mr. Young became chief of NASA’s astronaut office in 1974. He retired from the Navy as a captain in 1976, but continued to fly for NASA as a civilian.

In April 1981, Mr. Young commanded the Columbia space shuttle, with Mr. Crippen as the pilot, in the first flight of a reusable winged spacecraft. They orbited the earth 36 times, then touched down on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, the first landing of a spacecraft on a runway.

Mr. Young’s final flight came in the fall of 1983 when he commanded Columbia in the first launching of the European-built Spacelab laboratory, which was housed in the shuttle’s cargo bay. The six-man crew flew for 10 days, carrying out numerous experiments.

For all his service with NASA, Mr. Young could be a harsh critic of the agency. In January 1986, the Challenger shuttle blew up 73 seconds after launching, killing its seven astronauts. In March, Mr. Young wrote two internal memos asserting that NASA had exposed astronauts to numerous potentially “catastrophic” hazards because of pressure to maintain its launching schedule.

Mr. Young remained as the astronauts’ chief until 1987, then became special assistant to the director of the Johnson Space Center for engineering, operation and safety. He continued in a supervisory post at the center until retiring.

Mr. Young is survived by his second wife, the former Susy Feldman, two children, John and Sandra, from his first marriage to the former Barbara White, which ended in divorce, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In May 2000, still listed as an active astronaut though he would make no more spaceflights, Mr. Young said he yearned for NASA to fly to the moon again and envisioned missions beyond it.

“Our ability to live and work on other places in the solar system will end up giving us the science and technology that we need to save the species,” he told The Associated Press. “I’m talking about human beings. I’d hate to miss all that fun.”

Boeing: Historical Snapshot: Space Shuttle Orbiter

Boeing

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 COLLECTspace.com, 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.

Early Space Shuttle Flights Riskier Than Estimated: NPR

Early Space Shuttle Flights Riskier Than Estimated

Early Space Shuttle Flights Riskier Than Estimated

A retrospective risk analysis by the Space Shuttle Safety and Mission Assurance Office finds that the first nine shuttle flights had a 1 in 9 chance of catastrophic failure — 10 times the risk of flights today. Teri Hamlin and Mike Canga of NASA’s Johnson Space Center discuss the report.

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow.

After the Challenger exploded in 1986, President Reagan ordered a commission to investigate the disaster, and one of the participants was the famous physicist Richard Feynman. In his appendix to the presidential report, he wrote that the engineers he surveyed estimated such a disaster could happen roughly one out of 100 launches. Management gave figures like one in 100,000.

And now, 25 years later, a new NASA analysis has pegged those earlier flights as much riskier than even the most conservative estimates at that time, about a one in 10 chance – one in 10 chance – of losing a shuttle and its crew, which means only a 6 percent chance of making it through the first five years of shuttle flights, all the way to the Challenger disaster, without a catastrophe -only 6 percent.

As the shuttle program gears up for its last flights, is this risk worth now taking? Can we apply what we know today about the risks of space flight to whatever replaces the shuttle? That’s what we’ll be talking about this part of the hour. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Teri Hamlin is the technical lead of space shuttle probabilistic risk assessment at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Ms. Hamlin.

Ms. TERI HAMLIN (Technical Lead, Space Shuttle Probabilistic Risk Assessment, Johnson Space Center Houston, NASA): Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: You’re welcome. Mike Canga is the space shuttle program risk manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Mr. Canga.

Mr. MIKE CANGA (Space Shuttle Program Risk Manager, Johnson Space Center, NASA): Thank you.

FLATOW: Ms. Hamlin, tell us about this new risk review that you folks did. Did they know how risky it was back then? Because I recall – I covered the shuttle from day one – they kept – NASA kept routinely quoting the risk, if I remember, as something like one in 100,000.

Ms. HAMLIN: No, they did not, at that point in time, understand what risks they were accepting at that point in time. They really didn’t have a methodology in place to quantify – like we do today – to quantify the risks using complex models.

And also, there was just, you know, at that point in time, we hadn’t flown very many flights, and so we weren’t – we didn’t understand the integrated effects of the space shuttle vehicle at that point in time.

FLATOW: Because right up to the Challenger disaster, the risk in this new assessment is one in 10.

Ms. HAMLIN: Yes, that is correct. That is correct because what we’re doing is, we’re taking our current knowledge that we have today, and applying that to the configuration of the vehicle back then.

FLATOW: Mike Canga, knowing what we know about the risks today, about the risk to astronauts’ lives, if we had known it was one in 10, would you say that the early flights were simply too risky for Christa McAuliffe and civilians like that to have flown?

Mr. CANGA: I’m going to defer a little bit on that. I believe better management would have had to take that into better assessment than they had at the time. I do think we really under-appreciated the amount of risk at the time. And whether or not an individual would have been willing to accept that risk, I think it was incumbent on the agency to try and express it to them as accurately as we could.

Ms. HAMLIN: Can I interject a little bit here?

Ms. HAMLIN: I would just also say that if we knew at that point in time what the risks were, and therefore had this assessment, knew the dominant risk contributors, we would have been actively pursuing reducing those risks, as we do today – as we’ve done.

FLATOW: And a good – and a follow-up question to that is: What are the dominant risk contributors?

Ms. HAMLIN: The dominant risk contributors to the early flights?

Ms. HAMLIN: That would, obviously, be the RSRM and the thermal protection system, the solid rocket motor and the thermal protection system, Ascent debris risk that both Columbia and Challenger.

FLATOW: The foam falling off.

Ms. HAMLIN: Yeah, that’s correct.

Ms. HAMLIN: And also – the main engine also is a big contributor.

FLATOW: Main engine, would that be hydrogen?

Ms. HAMLIN: That would be the engine parts, the very high-energy turbo pumps that are involved in that operation, that they could have an there is hydrogen involved, but it’s the moving parts that can then come apart and explode.

FLATOW: And the number one risk today to the shuttle is, I think, is surprising to most people. What would that be?

Micro meteoroid and orbital debris.

FLATOW: Stuff that’s up there already, floating around in space.

Ms. HAMLIN: That’s correct. That’s correct. And it’s not those big pieces of debris that we’re talking about. It’s the little – tiny, little paint flecks that maybe chip off old satellites that could – that are moving extremely fast, that can cause a critical damage on the vehicle.

FLATOW: Teri, would you agree that’s the number one risk?

Ms. HAMLIN: I would. I would agree.

FLATOW: I’m sorry. Mike, would you agree?

Mr. CANGA: Well, yes, for in-flight risk, that is our top risk based on our estimates. I mean, we spend a lot of time and effort analyzing the things we understand, and we have such a length of time on orbit that that’s really where it gets us.

FLATOW: With the shuttle program just about finished, with just maybe a launch left, why are we releasing this data now, and why are we concerned about the risk?

Mr. CANGA: Well, we’re releasing the data now because we have it. I mean, the study that we’re talking about is one we’ve done based on all the information we haven’t had. We would not have been in a position to do this kind of study a couple of years ago.

FLATOW: No, I’m just saying: What have we learned about the future?

Ms. HAMLIN: Well, besides trying to understand our past on the shuttle and trying to show that we have made significant progress on reduction of risk, we’re trying to maybe show that new programs out there, new vehicles, may not be as safe as they think that they currently are, or the calculated risk is right now – that there may be some unidentified or unknown risks that they’ll be facing in the future, just like the shuttle did.

FLATOW: And to be aware that you have to look for the unexpected risks that you might not be thinking about.

FLATOW: Yeah. One thing that’s interesting, looking at your report, is risk did not always go down. You would think, over flight time, the risk would go down. But in some cases, it did not. Why is that?

Ms. HAMLIN: The reason – there are some external events that can happen to us when – in particular, that significantly increased the risk was the EPA banned freon, CFC 11, which was our blowing agent for the external tank foam. And so when we had to go to a new blowing agent, the foam did not adhere as well to the tank, and we got significantly more damages on the vehicle because of that.

And so it was really an external event that occurred to us which increased our risk.

FLATOW: And looking forward: We don’t have any manned space flights, after the shuttle, planned. I mean, nothing that’s – you know, we talk about it a lot. What can you, you know, do besides say, remember this stuff for the next time?

Mr. CANGA: Well, there are several programs in hand. At Johnson, we’re working on a multipurpose crew vehicle. And of course, SpaceX is working on their Dragon vehicle. So actually, the designs are in work now. So now is the time to have this information out for the designers.

FLATOW: So you have been looking, Teri, at the risk of commercial rockets, then?

Ms. HAMLIN: We’re going to be – well, I haven’t personally, I mean, been looking at it. But we are sharing this information with them. We’re planning on -to share this information with them, yes.

FLATOW: Because – I’m sorry, Mike, go ahead.

Mr. CANGA: Oh, no, I didn’t say anything.

Ms. HAMLIN: That was me. I was going to continue.

Ms. HAMLIN: I was just – it’s still up in the air, with regard to commercial, how the NASA-commercial relationship is going to proceed in the future.

FLATOW: What about international relationships? Have you shared this with the Chinese and the Indians, other people who have active rocket programs?

Ms. HAMLIN: We have not shared this with – it currently has not been released for – outside the United States.

Ms. HAMLIN: Well, I understand that, but I meant the whole entire – the entire.

Mr. CANGA: Right. We are working on releasing this and publishing this information. So at that point, it would be available. But it still has to go through some approval cycles.

Ms. HAMLIN: What’s been released, currently, is just, it’s a high-level summary of the study that’s been done.

FLATOW: And some interesting timelines on there, showing the risk fluctuating up and down. It’s quite interesting. And some of the statistics on the data sheet – like at the bottom, it talks about there was a 6 percent likelihood of making it to flight 25; and a 7 percent likelihood of making it from flight 26, which was the Challenger disaster, to flight 113, which was Columbia, without loss of the crew or the vehicle – using the values on the chart.

Mr. CANGA: To me, it wasn’t that – the early flights were a surprise, when we did them. But we’re talking about long campaigns. So, you know, we’re talking about 26 flights, which is more flights than we had in our previous space flightmanned space flight experience. And then we’re talking about the run from flight 26 to 113.

That is – those are long runs of flights with moderate probabilities. So when you look at the entire campaign, things begin to add up. In terms of per flight, these are – I’m probably stepping on Teri here, but these are independent probabilities. So the per-flight basis is really not too far off from either previous programs or – if you look at the failure rates of unmanned launchers, we’re actually quite a bit better than those.

FLATOW: We’ve run out of time. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

FLATOW: You’re welcome. Teri Hamlin, technical lead of space shuttle probabilistic risk assessment at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Mike Canga is space shuttle program risk manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center as well.

And if you want to see the summaries of this report and this interesting graphic, go to our website at sciencefriday.com, and click on the link that’ll take you to the NASA site. And you can look at this really interesting graphic of what the actual risks referred now – one in 10, one in nine – for those early space flights.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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7 Notable Space Shuttle Astronauts, Live Science

7 Notable Space Shuttle Astronauts

The space shuttle has launched 134 times during its 30 years of service, and in that time it has ferried more than 540 astronauts into space. Each one of those astronauts is a prime specimen of humanity and has made their own unique contributions, but a few space travelers stand out from the rest.

1. Robert Crippen

Even before Robert Crippen piloted the first flight of the space shuttle program, he had put together an impressive resume with NASA. He was a member of the astronaut support crew for Skylab missions and for the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which was the last Apollo mission, and the first joint U.S./Soviet space flight. In addition to the first shuttle flight, he commanded the shuttle on three missions in the 1980s: He presided over the first five-person crew, STS-7, flew with the first female American astronaut in space, Sally Ride, on STS-41-C and commandeered the first seven-person crew (STS-41-G). He spent 23 days in space over the course of his four shuttle missions.

2. John Young

John Young had already been in space four times by the time he was chosen to become the commander of the first space shuttle mission. He went on to be the commander of another space shuttle mission STS-9 in 1983, which carried the first Spacelab module. Additionally, he was the ninth person to walk on the moon (as commander of the Apollo 16 mission in 1972), and he is one of only three people who has been to the moon twice. When he retired in 2004, he had spent a total of 34 days in space.

3. Sally Ride

Sally Ride was already a notable American physicist before she began her rather unorthodox path to becoming a space shuttle astronaut. Ride found her way to the shuttle by being one of 8,000 people to answer a NASA application advertisement in a newspaper. In August 1979, she completed one year of training, and then performed as an on-orbit capsule communicator (CAPCOM) on the STS-2 and STS-3 missions. On June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman in space as a crewmember on Challenger for STS-7.

4. Guy Bluford

Before becoming the first African-American in space on Challenger mission STS-8, Guy Bluford was an engineer and a retired colonel from the United States Air Force. He participated in four space shuttle flights between 1983 and 1992. In addition to his STS-8 flight, he flew on the Spacelab-equipped STS-61-A mission, and two Department of Defense-dedicated missions, STS-39, and STS-53. He retired in 1993, having logged more than 28 days in space.

5. Kathryn Sullivan

In 1984, mission specialist Kathryn Sullivan became the first American woman to walk in space (STS-41 G). She was a crewmember on three space shuttle missions (STS-41G, STS-31 and STS-45), and logged 22 days in space.

6. John Glenn

One of the pioneers of space exploration, John Glenn was the fifth person in space and the first person to orbit the Earth, aboard Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962. He went on to have a long career in NASA, and in 1998 he was asked to be a part of the space shuttle Discovery mission (STS-95). He was 77 at the time, setting the record of oldest person to go into space. This also made him the third seated politician to fly in space (he was serving as a U.S. senator from Ohio at the time). Glenn logged a total of nine days in space during his NASA career.

7. Bruce McCandless II

If you’re impressed by John Glenn’s feat of orbiting around the Earth, you’ll be blown away by Bruce McCandless II’s main claim to fame: In 1984, he became the first human to orbit Earth without a spacecraft. He made the trip wearing just his Manned Maneuvering Unit, that jetpacklike device astronauts use on spacewalks. As a mission specialist on two space shuttle missions (STS-41-B and STS-31), he logged more than 312 hours in space.

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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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.”