Shuttle program brought breakthroughs, but proved costly and dangerous
Two former Navy test pilots sat alone atop millions of pounds of rocket fuel, risking their lives to find out if the most audacious planned space launch in history could get off the ground.
There had never been a spacecraft like the complex vehicle that loomed on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at dawn on April 12, 1981. Space Shuttle Columbia was designed to blast off like a moon rocket with the help of detachable boosters, deploy giant payloads in orbit, glide back down to Earth and be ready for another launch in under two weeks.
Once fully operational, NASA’s shuttle program should, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, “provide economic and routine access to space for scientific exploration, commercial ventures and for tasks related to the national security.”
That first flight would be commanded by astronaut John Young, a Gemini and Apollo spaceflight veteran who’d left footprints on the moon. To his right, pilot Robert Crippen was anticipating his first trip into orbit.
Thirty years later, with countdown set to begin ticking Wednesday on the 135th and final launch of the space shuttle program scheduled for Friday, a look back shows that some of those early hopes have been realized. Shuttle payloads ranging from Spacelab to the orbiting Hubble telescope produced a scientific bonanza. And shuttle astronauts this year put finishing touches on perhaps the program’s most important accomplishment — construction of the International Space Station.
But with launches that cost more than $1 billion on average, the program never lived up to its billing of providing cheap, regular access to space.
Most disturbingly, though the shuttle was supposed to be a reliable workhorse, two major accidents have claimed the lives of 14 astronauts, revealing that the most capable spacecraft launched is also the most treacherous.
On that first morning in 1981, with Young and Crippen strapped in as the clock ticked down, a theme emerged that would echo on to the end of the program: Shuttle astronauts — always led by elite pilots from the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Army — would display a steely dedication to mission in the face of risk most people would find unimaginable.
More than any other factor, their single-minded focus on getting the job done in trying circumstances made the space shuttle program, despite its shortcomings and tragedies, one of America’s great accomplishments.
The launch of STS-1, NASA lingo for the first flight of the “space transportation system,” had already been scrubbed once by computer problems. Crippen told himself another delay was likely. But as the sun rose higher above the horizon, the countdown progressed to within a minute of liftoff.
“I turned to John and said ‘I think we’re going to do it,’” Crippen said. “That’s when my pulse rate went up to about 130. John’s stayed around 90.”
Then came the launch and what Crippen called the “pure excitement” of seemingly limitless acceleration as rocket engines strained toward the 17,500 mph velocity necessary to reach orbit.
Never before had a crew blasted off on a craft that hadn’t been flight tested, and some at NASA called it foolishness to do so now. But others, including the astronauts, argued landing the shuttle robotically could be risky to people on the ground in California. Besides, what if problems arose the required the intervention of test pilots?
“John and I had both been strong proponents of having people on board to deal with anything that might go wrong,” Crippen said, “and bring that information back.”
The shuttle that launched that day was not the one first envisioned.
In the 1960s, with the end of the Apollo moon program in sight, NASA hatched a bold plan to build dozens of orbiting space stations, giving America a permanent foothold in space. The shuttle itself was a modest component of the system, a space taxi to shuttle people and materiel up and back.
Politics and budgetary priorities of the day — Great Society programs, the Vietnam War — slashed the grand vision. In the end, NASA retained federal funding only for the spacecraft by promoting it as an all-purpose, low-cost, safe way to move commercial and Defense Department satellites into orbit.
Little by little, design compromises piled up. As a cost savings, “since NASA believed that the Space Shuttle would be far safer than any other spacecraft, the agency accepted a design with no crew escape system,” according to the investigation report that followed the 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia, the craft Crippen and Young had flown on day one. Previous manned spaceflight systems, even some craft that carried animals on test flights, had escape systems.
Likewise, the high degree of atmospheric maneuverability required by the Pentagon, based on satellite launch plans of the early 1970s, meant the orbiter needed enormous delta wings that would be vulnerable to the high-temperature stress of re-entry, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board reported.
But as the shuttle roared majestically into orbit in the program’s early years, such concerns were still in the future. The astronauts, most of whom had left active military service to join NASA, were thrilled to have a hand in the secretive Department of Defense missions that began in 1982.
“I can’t really talk much about those missions, but in my opinion, we helped win the Cold War,” Crippen said.
The people of the United States, meanwhile, were hungry for inspiration.
“The ’70s had not been a great time for us here in the United States,” Crippen said. “We’d had the end of the Vietnam War, the Iran hostages, the president shot, and I think we were looking for something to be proud of.
“And that’s what the space shuttle gave our nation.”
On STS-41c, a milestone mission in 1984, the shuttle proved its unique capabilities. Challenger, under Crippen’s command, captured the broken SolarMax research satellite for mission specialists to repair before relaunching it. It was a first in the history of spaceflight.
After Challenger touched down, pilot Dick Scobee eluded reporters, friends and neighbors. Glowing like someone guarding a precious secret, he sought out his wife and former high school sweetheart, June Scobee.
“We slipped away to a favorite restaurant, he tucked his napkin in, and said ‘Now I’m going to tell you what it was like to fly in space,’” she said.
It was still a time when each shuttle launch was an occasion. President Ronald Reagan had announced the names of the STS-41c crew in an address, but inadvertently skipped over Scobee. Didn’t that make him mad, his wife asked?
“But he said no,” she said. “What was important to focus on was the mission, not personal recognition.”
Soon after, Scobee, a former Air Force test pilot, was named commander of his next flight aboard Challenger. For STS-51L, the highest-profile mission would be educational rather than military or commercial. With great fanfare, NASA had selected New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe to teach lessons from space in hopes of sparking childrens’ interest in learning while boosting the profile of America’s teachers.
Meaning from tragedy
On the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, schoolchildren across the country broke from regular classes to watch the launch. For all the wrong reasons, it became a moment many would never forget. Just over a minute into the flight, Challenger exploded, killing the seven crew members.
An investigation would zero in on a solid rocket booster O-ring seal hardened by unusually cold weather, as well as a complacent NASA safety culture that failed to pick up on warnings that could have averted the disaster.
The accident prevented another launch for 32 months while NASA worked to improve space shuttle safety. The families, who had watched the failed launch together at Kennedy Space Center, gathered weeks later to search for meaning in the tragedy.
The dedication to the shuttle’s mission that had driven their loved ones now motivated them.
“I asked them if we should try to continue this mission for education that our loved ones lost their lives carrying out,” said June Scobee-Rodgers, who remarried several years later. “So the families came together and elected me chairman of what seemed an impossible task.”
But 25 years later, the families’ living memorial to the lost crew — the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, based in Alexandria, Va. — is a thriving educational foundation with local centers worldwide. Four million children have participated in the program so far.
“If our loved ones valued something so much that they would risk their lives for it, why wouldn’t we try to continue the mission of space exploration?” Scobee-Rodgers said. “The pioneering spirit is part of who we are as a nation, and the families of the Challenger astronauts know that more than most.”
As NASA struggled to recover from disaster, the shuttle’s limitations — complexity, cost, and inherent danger — were becoming clear. The Pentagon decided to limit its use of the shuttle only to payloads that couldn’t be launched any other way. Any remaining hope of the program paying for itself fizzled when President Reagan announced it would no longer launch commercial satellites.
From a scientific standpoint, however, the shuttle program was entering some of its most productive years.
The early 1990s saw the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, an awesome instrument that has made many of the most iconic space images. Later there would be the Gamma Ray Observatory and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Together, they’ve helped scientists understand how structures like stars and galaxies formed, and provided key clues about the universe’s origin.
“The Hubble telescope is probably the greatest accomplishment of the shuttle to most people,” said William Readdy, a three-time shuttle astronaut and former NASA manager. “It was not only able to deploy Hubble, but to routinely service it. The first service mission actually salvaged it and made it functional when a problem became apparent with the [telescope’s] main mirror.”
Readdy, a former Navy test pilot, commanded a September 1996 shuttle launch that docked with the Russian space station Mir. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union had beaten the United States in establishing an inhabited space station, but through the Shuttle-Mir program, the United States hoped to gain knowledge in preparation for the beginning of work International Space Station, or ISS.
“I was raised a cold warrior, went into the Navy, and thought of the Russians — the Soviets actually — as our arch rivals,” he said. “So to have commanded the Atlantis 15 years ago and to have docked with the former Soviet space station Mir ... My participation, however small, in building that relationship is what I’m proudest of.”
Life in space
Space shuttle history can be divided into two eras, said former astronaut Bill McArthur, a retired Army aviator and veteran of three shuttle missions.
“In the first half of the space shuttle program we were visiting space, deploying satellites, going up with the Spacelab and coming back down,” said McArthur, who now manages the shuttle orbiter programs office. “But the second half of the shuttle program, with the Shuttle-Mir program transitioning into the International Space Station, that’s when we began living in space.”
In 1998, shuttle crew members put together a Russian and American module, and the ISS was born. In the following years, space shuttle missions accomplished much of the work assembling the station, a collaboration that also includes Japan, the European Union and Canada as central contributors.
McArthur himself called orbit his home for six months when he served as ISS commander in 2006 and 2007.
“My experience on the International Space Station was better than I’d hoped for in my wildest dreams,” he said.
Even routine chores such as cleaning, changing air filters and servicing failed components never seemed boring when performed hundreds of miles above the earth. His interaction with his Russian “space brother,” cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, was harmonious. Daily calls to his wife and daughters staved off loneliness. And simply staring out the windows at the earth passing rapidly below was endlessly fascinating.
The experience confirmed McArthur’s belief that far from being out of place in the cosmos, humanity can be a space-going race. A nearly constant rhythm of shuttle launches over three decades, he said, has helped reinforce the same idea to the world at large.
“I believe the space shuttle program has defined how humanity views its place in the universe,” McArthur said. “I was not quite 10 when [cosmonaut Yuri] Gagarin first went into space, and it just stunned people in those days.
“Spaceflight is still an inspirational endeavor, but because of the space shuttle, people think we belong in space now.”
Fingers of plasma
Spaceflight hardly seemed routine, however, on pilot John Casper’s first shuttle launch. A classified Pentagon mission in 1990, STS-36 blasted off in the early morning hours. Casper, a former Air Force test pilot, had the sensation of rocketing toward space inside a giant fireball.
As shuttle Atlantis roared toward orbital speed, things got weird.
“As we accelerated up to mach 14 or 15 halfway through the 8½-minute launch, these fingers of plasma started coming down over the windows,” he said. “They were colored kind of eerie — greenish, bluish, and moving against the airflow” of more than 10,000 miles per hour.
“J.O., do you think that’s OK?” Casper asked, turning toward mission commander John O. Creighton.
“I sure hope it is,” said Creighton, also a night launch novice. But the eerie lightshow was simply the result of speed and intense atmospheric friction, harmless to an undamaged space shuttle.
Thirteen years later, Casper, by then a senior astronaut, picked through briars of the east Texas Piney Woods looking for the wreckage of another shuttle that had not survived its run-in with the atmosphere.
Columbia had broken up on re-entry over Texas on February 1, 2003, plummeting to earth in a shower of flame.
Casper was one of the managers of the ground search. Priority No. 1 was finding out why another crew of seven astronauts had died and making sure whatever caused it was corrected.
“We were very hopeful, because we knew there was a good chance we would find a piece of debris that would be the smoking gun,” he said.
The army of thousands of Forest Service firefighters and local volunteers that combed thousands of square miles in three states finally discovered the leading edge of the left wing. The aluminum structure behind it had been melted.
“We knew a piece of foam insulation had broken off the fuel tank and hit that wing during liftoff, but we hadn’t known foam could actually punch through reinforced carbon-carbon,” the black material on the nose and wings of the shuttle that shields areas most vulnerable to heat during re-entry.
As the shuttle had re-entered the atmosphere at blinding speed, the same eerie fingers of superheated plasma Casper had seen at the window of Atlantis reached inside Columbia through the hole in the wing and caused havoc. The aluminum wing structure melted until finally the orbiter could no longer survive the high-speed descent.
Astronauts frequently compare themselves to an extended family, and as NASA prepared once again to search for the root causes of a tragedy, Casper mourned his friends and colleagues.
“We’re a pretty small group in the astronaut office, and when you lose a crew like that, it’s devastating,” he said. “Devastating for a while.”
But then, being astronauts, they refocused on the mission, as they knew their lost comrades would want it.
Return to flight
If the Challenger disaster had killed the idea of the space shuttle as a viable commercial vehicle, Columbia essentially showed that in the long run, the shuttle wasn’t safe enough for any use.
The first shuttle commander, John Young, had declared years earlier that in terms of risk, one shuttle mission was equivalent to 60 combat flights. If anything, that judgment now seemed optimistic. The risk could not be reduced to acceptable levels, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded.
There was one major catch, however. Because there was no replacement available, simply shutting down the program could be fatal to an International Space Station still years from completion.
With a risk of catastrophic failure now roughly calculated at 1-in-100, and nearly 20 missions still to run, the loss of another crew was a definite possibility. But the astronauts embraced the mission without hesitation, clearing the path for the completion of the ISS.
Eileen Collins, a former Air Force test pilot and first woman commander of a shuttle mission in 1999, was chosen to lead the 2005 mission labeled “Return to Flight.” As she saw it, her job was to make sure the bravery of her crew and those to follow was backed up by absolute attention to safety.
“We’ve always known going into space has inherent dangers, but that’s a risk I wanted to take, as long as I actually understood the risks we would be taking,” she said.
So Collins traveled to factories to check the new methods for making the foam insulation that had brought down Columbia. She spent long hours with engineers and program managers going over designs and safety procedures.
She also sought counsel from the Columbia crew families.
“It was very important to them we continue the shuttle flights,” she said. “Some voices were calling for the end of the shuttle program because of the risk. The idea was, ‘OK, they had the accident, and now we’re going to stop the shuttle.’
“But the families and the astronauts together said, ‘No, we’re going to continue their mission.’”
In early 2011, space shuttle missions delivered the final major components necessary to complete the ISS. On Friday, commander Christopher Ferguson, pilot Douglas Hurley and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim are scheduled to lift off in Atlantis to deliver supplies to the station. Their July 20 return will mark the end of the space shuttle era.