I wrote previously about witnessing history when my daughter and I went down to the National Mall to see the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery and then went down to the Udvar-Hazy Annex of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum to see it touch noses with the Enterprise before being installed permanently. NASA was out in full force for installation ceremony along with many former astronauts. It is bittersweet to see the shuttle era end, but well worth reviewing some of the highlights of the program’s history.
1981 – A new space era dawns
In 1981, the Space Shuttle era began, retiring the Apollo model of space exploration. Instead of one-time use, the new Space Shuttles, beginning with the Space Shuttle Columbia, would take off, land just as many of the experimental X-vehicles had done, and then be ready for relaunch–the iconic image of the shuttle attached to two rocket boosters and one enormous fuel tank. It was perfectly designed for in-orbit missions and working with the International Space Station.
Once it concluded its mission, the pilots would set the coordinates for unpowered landing–in other words, it became like a 100-ton glider aimed at dried lakebed at Edwards, California. Once landed, the engines would be removed and shipped back to Cape Canaveral, while the shuttle would be lifted onto the modified 747 that would fly it home (just like it is seen in the video above). NASA teams would go over the shuttle to confirm that nothing was amiss after the stresses of takeoff, mission completion, and re-entry, in preparation for the next launch. This is why the Space Shuttle was different.
1980s – Challenges
In light of miscalculations on the cost of the shuttle, launch, return, refurbishment, and reuse, NASA pushed itself, setting records that still stand today, by launching 9 missions in 1985. The second launch of 1986 was that of the Challenger. The margin for error is practically non-existent in launching a Space Shuttle, and that Challenger launch was sadly flawed.
Up to this point, there had been 24 successful missions flown by Space Shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis that launched communications satellites, Spacelabs, mammals, foreign crew members, and whose flight time lasted as little as 2 days, 6 hours, and 13 minutes (2nd launch, Columbia, 11/12/81, Joe H. Engle and Richard H. Truly) to as long as 10 days, 7 hours, and 47 minutes (9th launch, Columbia, 11/28/83, John W. Young, Brewster H. Shaw, Owen K. Garriott, Robert A. R. Parker, Byron K. Lichtenberg, Ulf Merbold, West German–1st non-U.S. astronaut). This time, however, with American History teacher and the primary candidate for the NASA Teacher in Space Program, Christa McAuliffe on board, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after take-off. Across the country, American school students were watching in their classrooms. None of the crew survived.
SEQUENCE OF MAJOR EVENTS OF THE CHALLENGER ACCIDENT Mission Time Elapsed (GMT, in hr:min:sec) Event Time (secs.) Source 16:37:53.444 ME-3 Ignition Command -6.566 GPC 37:53.564 ME-2 Ignition Command -6.446 GPC 37:53.684 ME-1 Ignition Command -6.326 GPC 38:00.010 SRM Ignition Command (T=0) 0.000 GPC 38:00.018 Holddown Post 2 PIC firing 0.008 E8 Camera 38:00.260 First Continuous Vertical Motion 0.250 E9 Camera 38:00.688 Confirmed smoke above field joint on RH SRM 0.678 E60 Camera 38:00.846 Eight puffs of smoke (from 0.836 thru 2.500 sec MET) 0.836 E63 Camera 38:02.743 Last positive evidence of smoke above right aft SRB/ET attach ring 2.733 CZR-1 Camera 38:03.385 Last positive visual indication of smoke 3.375 E60 Camera 38:04.349 SSME 104% Command 4.339 E41M2076D 38:05.684 RH SRM pressure 11.8 psi above nominal 5.674 B47P2302C 38:07.734 Roll maneuver initiated 7.724 V90R5301C 38:19.869 SSME 94% Command 19.859 E41M2076D 38:21.134 Roll maneuver completed 21.124 VP0R5301C 38:35.389 SSME 65% Command 35.379 E41M2076D 38:37.000 Roll and Yaw Attitude Response to Wind (36.990 to 62.990 sec) 36.990 V95H352nC 38:51.870 SSME 104% Command 51.860 E41M2076D 38:58.798 First evidence of flame on RH SRM 58.788 E207 Camera 38:59.010 Reconstructed Max Q (720 psf) 59.000 BET 38:59.272 Continuous well defined plume on RH SRM 59.262 E207 Camera 38:59.763 Flame from RH SRM in +Z direction (seen from south side of vehicle) 59.753 E204 Camera 39:00.014 SRM pressure divergence (RH vs. LH) 60.004 B47P2302 39:00.248 First evidence of plume deflection, intermittent 60.238 E207 Camera 39:00.258 First evidence of SRB plume attaching to ET ring frame 60.248 E203 Camera 39:00.998 First evidence of plume deflection, continuous 60.988 E207 Camera 39:01.734 Peak roll rate response to wind 61.724 V90R5301C 39:02.094 Peak TVC response to wind 62.084 B58H1150C 39:02.414 Peak yaw response to wind 62.404 V90R5341C 39:02.494 RH outboard elevon actuator hinge moment spike 62.484 V58P0966C 39:03.934 RH outboard elevon actuator delta pressure change 63.924 V58P0966C 39:03.974 Start of planned pitch rate maneuver 63.964 V90R5321C 39:04.670 Change in anomalous plume shape (LH2 tank leak near 2058 ring frame) 64.660 E204 Camera 39:04.715 Bright sustained glow on sides of ET 64.705 E204 Camera 39:04.947 Start SSME gimbal angle large pitch variations 64.937 V58H1100A 39:05.174 Beginning of transient motion due to changes in aero forces due to plume 65.164 V90R5321C 39:06.774 Start ET LH2 ullage pressure deviations 66.764 T41P1700C 39:12.214 Start divergent yaw rates (RH vs. LH SRB) 72.204 V90R2528C 39:12.294 Start divergent pitch rates (RH vs. LH SRB) 72.284 V90R2525C 39:12.488 SRB major high-rate actuator command 72.478 V79H2111A 39:12.507 SSME roll gimball rates 5 deg/sec 72.497 V58H1100A 39:12.535 Vehicle max +Y lateral acceleration (+.227 g) 72.525 V98A1581C 39:12.574 SRB major high-rate actuator motion 72.564 B58H1151C 39:12.574 Start of H2 tank pressure decrease with 2 flow control valves open 72.564 T41P1700C 39:12.634 Last state vector downlinked 72.624 Data reduction 39:12.974 Start of sharp MPS LOX inlet pressure drop 72.964 V41P1330C 39:13.020 Last full computer frame of TDRS data 73.010 Data reduction 39:13.054 Start of sharp MPS LH2 inlet pressure drop 73.044 V41P1100C 39:13.055 Vehicle max -Y lateral accelerarion (-.254 g) 73.045 V98A1581C 39:13.134 Circumferential white pattern on ET aft dome (LH2 tank failure) 73.124 E204 Camera 39:13.134 RH SRM pressure 19 psi lower than LH SRM 73.124 B47P2302C 39:13.147 First hint of vapor at intertank E207 Camera 39:13.153 All engine systems start responding to loss of fuel and LOX inlet pressure 73.143 SSME team 39:13.172 Sudden cloud a long ET between intertank and aft dome 73.162 E207 Camera 39:13.201 Flash between Orbiter & LH2 tank 73.191 E204 Camera 39:13.221 SSME telemetry data interference from 73.211 to 73.303 73.211 39:13.223 Flash near SRB fwd attach and brightening of flash between Orbiter and ET 73.213 E204 Camera 39:13.292 First indication intense white flash at SRB fwd attach point 73.282 E204 Camera 39:13.337 Greatly increased intensity of white flash 73.327 E204 Camera 39:13.387 Start RCS jet chamber pressure fluctuations 73.377 V42P1552A 39:13.393 All engines approaching HPFT discharge temp redline limits 73.383 E41Tn010D 39:13.492 ME-2 HPFT disch. temp Chan. A vote for shutdown; 2 strikes on Chan. B 73.482 MEC data 39:13.492 ME-2 controller last time word update 73.482 MEC data 39:13.513 ME-3 in shutdown due to HPFT discharge temperature redline exceedance 73.503 MEC data 39:13.513 ME-3 controller last time word update 73.503 MEC data 39:13.533 ME-1 in shutdown due to HPFT discharge temperature redline exceedance 73.523 Calculation 39:13.553 ME-1 last telemetered data point 73.543 Calculation 39:13.628 Last validated Orbiter telemetry measurement 73.618 V46P0120A 39:13.641 End of last reconstructured data frame with valid synchronization and frame count 73.631 Data reduction 39:14.140 Last radio frequency signal from Orbiter 74.130 Data reduction 39:14.597 Bright flash in vicinity of Orbiter nose 74.587 E204 Camera 39:16.447 RH SRB nose cap sep/chute deployment 76.437 E207 Camera 39:50.260 RH SRB RSS destruct 110.250 E202 Camera 39:50.262 LH SRB RSS destruct 110.252 E230 Camera ~ http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/missions/51-l/docs/events.txt
The destruction put the program on hold for 32 months while the accident was investigated and NASA spent time reflecting on how to better protect its people. On September 29, 1988, the Discovery returned to the launch pad and space. The following year, Atlantis, would launch the Venus orbiter Magellan from its orbit around the Earth, and on a subsequent mission, the Jupiter probe and orbiter, Galileo.
1990s – A decade for science exploration
On April 24, 1990, the third shuttle mission of the new decade, Discovery launched the Hubble Space Telescope, then would later launch the Ulysses spacecraft to investigate interstellar space and the Sun. This initiated a number of research craft for NASA (this does not include all experiments, merely the deployment of research equipment):
- Gamma Ray Observatory (Atlantis, 4/5/91, 39th STS flight)
- Spacelab Life Sciences (Columbia, 6/5/91, 41st STS flight)
- Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (Discovery, 9/12/91, 43rd STS flight)
- International Microgravity Laboratory-1 (Discovery, 1/22/92, 45th STS flight)
- Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science, ATLAS-1 (Atlantis, 3/24/92, 46th STS flight)
- U.S. Microgravity Laboratory-1 (Columbia, 6/25/92, 48th STS flight)
- Laser Geodynamics Satellite (Columbia, 10/22/92, 51st STS flight)
- ATLAS-1 (Discovery, 4/8/93, 54th STS flight)
- … and many more.
The highlights arguably being the International Space Station and the Mir Space Station, from 1995 – to the present. By the close of the decade, December 19, 1999, the program had reached 96 missions.
2000s – 100 and beyond
The 100th mission, flown by Discovery on October 11, 2000, delivered the first piece of the backbone structure of the ISS. Going into the 21st Century, the Space Shuttle underwent a series of improvements for safety and function, streamlining weight and processes. Despite this, on February 1, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia re-entered in the Earth’s atmosphere, following a 17-day science mission, and exploded over the lower half of the United States.
That morning I was standing next to the runway [at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida] with [NASA Administrator] Sean O’Keefe. We were right next to the bleachers with the families, waiting for Columbia to come home. We were all watching the countdown clock. We didn’t have access to TV. The clock was getting down to where I expected we’d have radar lock-on, tracking cameras, all those kinds of things being announced. The only thing I’m hearing is comm[unications] checks over the voice loop. Then we get five minutes prior to touchdown, and no sigh of them nothing. They’re still doing comm checks. At that point I went back to the car and got my contingency folder that I carry with me everywhere, and I said to Sean, “I think something really bad has happened. They’re certainly not landing here.”
Shortly thereafter the phones started ringing, with reports that debris had been sighted over east Texas. So we collected up the families and took them to the crew quarters, and got them comfortable. We started working on what we thought might be a search-and-rescue plan, but it soon became apparent that it was a search-and-recovery.
~William Readdy, Space Shuttle, 1981-2011, Air & Space Smithsonian
The Space Shuttle program would continue after another pause, investigation, and reflection until 2005. The ship that launched the Space Shuttle program into orbit in 1981, was lost along with its crew of seven.
By this time, Discovery had already surpassed Columbia in missions, making it the most traveled relic of the Space Shuttle era.
2010-2011 – Final descent into history
There would be six final missions, with the Shuttles Endeavor, Discovery and Atlantis would each fly a final two missions.
Number of missions:
Discovery —– 39
Atlantis ——– 33
Columbia —— 28*
Endeavor —— 25
Challenger —– 10*
* includes ill-fated final mission
Today, the Discovery has replaced the Enterprise, which never flew in space but was used to test the Shuttle’s atmospheric flight, at the Udvar-Hazy Annex of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. When it flew into the DC area, we caught above footage in front of the Capitol. Below are photos from the installation ceremony, before Enterprise was finally able to get up to New York, NY after several weather delays.
For more information about what’s next, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/about/whats_next.html.
NASA publications and website
Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine, Collector’s Edition, Space Shuttle, 1981-2011.