Daily Archives: April 28, 2012

Final Descent, A retrospective on NASA’s Space Shuttle program

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 ColumbiaChallenger, 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.


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.

"Mosaic of Journey" by 7th grader Grace Chandler, from Woodbury MN (photographed at the installation ceremony)

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

~ Ibid.

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.

Welcome Space Shuttle DISCOVERY!

Space-voyager DISCOVERY approaches the experimental ENTERPRISE

Touching noses!

The future of NASA's manned Space Exploration?

For more information about what’s next, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/about/whats_next.html.

DISCOVERY'S new home!


NASA publications and website

Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine, Collector’s Edition, Space Shuttle, 1981-2011.


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