Space Shuttle: End of an Era
As a kid growing up during the space race era of the 1960s I became enamored with space flight at a very early age. The Apollo missions that eventually led to man’s first visit to the moon had me glued to the television news and reading the newspaper reports of each mission. Back then this was big news, really big news. The Apollo flights were followed on television by the news stations virtually around the clock and the newspaper coverage was wall-to-wall articles and pictures of what was taking place. The United States was in a race to be the first country to put a man on the moon and the effort to accomplish this was nothing short of monumental. I remember my parents waking me up late in the evening hours on July 21st, 1969 so that I could witness Neil Armstrong become the first human being to set foot upon the surface of the moon at 10:56 pm. EST. This set the stage for a lifelong fascination with space and aviation.
Along came the Space Shuttle
Following the Apollo Program came the era of the Space Shuttle. A reusable spacecraft that could take off like a rocket and glide back to earth and land like an ordinary airplane, the Shuttle program launched its first mission on April 12, 1981. After over 30 years of service to the United States, including a total of 135 missions, the Space Shuttle program ended on July 21, 2011, when its last mission was completed. Today, the Space Shuttles are preparing for retirement and as they head to their final resting locations around the country the era of NASA's manned space flight comes to an end for the time being. The long and storied career of the Space Shuttle fleet was certainly a technological success but the story of the Space Shuttle was not without tragedy and sacrifice.
The Space Shuttle Enterprise was actually the first shuttle built but it never flew into space. Enterprise was completed on September 17, 1976. The shuttle Enterprise was built as a prototype and was used by NASA for flight testing and pilot training. Built without engines or the protective heat shields to protect it during atmospheric re-entry it was never capable of flying into space.
The first flight of Enterprise was atop a modified 747 on February 18, 1977. Enterprise would eventually have five missions where it was released from its 747 mother-ship and guided to a landing by an astronaut pilot. Enterprise will be retired to the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York.
The first shuttle launch ever was on April 12, 1981, by the Space Shuttle Columbia. In fact, Columbia flew the first five missions as it was the only ship completed and ready for flight. Between 1981 and 2003 the shuttle Columbia flew a total of 28 missions. It was tragically destroyed upon re-entry over Texas on January 16, 2003, on its way to a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The resulting investigation pointed to a piece of foam insulation that broke free from the external fuel tank during the launch and damaged the protective heat-shielding tiles on the left-wing. The extreme heat generated during re-entry caused structural damage to the now unprotected area of the left-wing and the spacecraft quickly came apart resulting in the deaths of all seven crew members.
The second Space Shuttle to enter service and fly a mission was the Challenger. The Space Shuttle Challenger flew its first mission on April 4, 1983. During its brief history, Challenger flew ten missions. Who can forget the horrific accident on January 28, 1986, when the Challenger was tragically destroyed 73 seconds after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center. This particular flight had garnered the attention of the world as it was to be the first Teacher in Space flight with New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard.
The investigation into the accident discovered that a faulty O-ring separating sections of the solid rocket boosters had failed resulting in a catastrophic structural failure of the booster rocket, which subsequently caused the shuttle to break apart. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that millions of school children across the country were tuned in and watching the launch. Thirty-two months would pass before the shuttle Discovery would take Americans back into space.
Space Shuttle Discovery would be the third shuttle to enter service with its maiden flight on August 30, 1984. During its long twenty-seven year tenure, Discovery would go on to fly thirty-nine missions, the most by any of the shuttles. Discovery flew over 148 million miles during its service and placed thirty-one satellites into orbit. Discovery also made thirteen visits to the International Space Station. Probably its most notable mission was to place the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit on April 24th, 1990.
The Discovery's final resting place will be the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center and on April 19, 2012 the Discovery flew piggyback atop a modified 747 for its journey to Washington D.C.
The fourth shuttle to enter service was the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Atlantis made it first flight on October 3, 1985. Atlantis went on to fly a total of thirty-three missions, including twelve to the International Space Station. Atlantis traveled over 125 million miles during its service and deployed fourteen satellites. The final resting place of Atlantis will be the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center Complex in Florida.
The fifth and final shuttle built by Rockwell International, the prime contractor for the space shuttle, was the Space Shuttle Endeavor. The construction of Endeavor was authorized by Congress in 1987 to replace Challenger and flew its first mission on May 7, 1992. Endeavor went on to fly twenty-five missions, including twelve visits to the International Space Station.
In 1993 Endeavor made the first mission to the damaged Hubble Space Telescope to repair it. Interestingly, the name for the shuttle Endeavor was the result of a national contest among elementary and secondary schools to come up with an appropriate name for the spacecraft. A fitting tribute to Christa McAullife and the Challenger crew. Endeavor will spend its retirement years at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Interesting Shuttle Facts
- There were a total of 135 Space Shuttle missions.
- The first flight of the Space Shuttle was on April 12, 1981 by shuttle Columbia, a two day mission orbiting the earth 37 times.
- The last Space Shuttle flight ended on July 21, 2011, when Atlantis returned home from its trip to the orbiting International Space Station.
- The last Shuttle flight was 42 years and 1 day after the Apollo 11 moon landing.
- 34 of the 135 Shuttle missions were launched at night.
- Enterprise was originally to be named Constitution but NASA changed the name after being deluged by Star Trek fans requesting the name be changed to Enterprise.
- The original four flying Space Shuttles were all named after sailing ships; Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis.
- Space Shuttle missions are referred to by the acronym STS which stands for Space Transportation System.
- The NASA Space Shuttle fleet logged over 800,000,000 miles during it's thirty years of service.
- The Space Shuttle contains over 2.5 million individual parts.
- The Space Shuttles did not contain showers so astronauts took sponge baths while in space.
- The Spaces Shuttles do have toilets but they operate using air flow rather than water flow which would not work in the zero-gravity environment of space.
- The prime contractor for the Space Shuttle was Rockwell International and the final assembly of the Shuttles took place in Palmdale, California.
The Courageous Crew of Challenger
Honoring the Crew of Columbia
Location of Space Shuttles
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Bill De Giulio