Wings In Orbit
Scientific and Engineering
Legacies of the Space Shuttle
Foreword: John Young
Robert Crippen
Executive Editor: Wayne Hale
Editor in Chief: Helen Lane
Coeditors: Gail Chapline
Kamlesh Lulla
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Front: View of Space Shuttle Endeavour
(STS-118) docked to the International Space
Station in August 2007.
Back: Launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour
(STS-130) during the early morning hours
en route to the International Space Station
in February 2010.
Spine: A rear view of the Orbiter Discovery
showing the drag chute deployed during the
landing of STS-96 at Kennedy Space Center
in May 1999.
Page iii
To the courageous
men and women who devoted
their lives in pursuit
of excellence in the
Space Shuttle Program.
We were honored and privileged to fly the shuttle’s first orbital flight into space
aboard Columbia on April 12, 1981. It was the first time anyone had crewed a space
launch vehicle that hadn’t been launched unmanned. It also was the first vehicle
to use large solid rockets and the first with wings to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and
land on a runway. All that made it a great mission for a couple of test pilots.
That first mission proved the vehicle could do the basics for which it had been
designed: to launch, operate on orbit, and reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and land
on a runway. Subsequent flights proved the overall capability of the Space Shuttle.
The program went on to deploy satellites, rendezvous and repair satellites, operate as
a microgravity laboratory, and ultimately build the International Space Station.
It is a fantastic vehicle that combines human operations with a large cargo
capability—a capability that is unlikely to be duplicated in future vehicles anytime
soon. The shuttle has allowed expanding the crew to include non-pilots and women.
It has provided a means to include our international partners with the Canada arm,
the European Spacelab, and eventually the Russians in operation with Mir and
the building of the International Space Station. The station allowed expanding that
international cooperation even further.
The Space Shuttle Program has also served as an inspiration for young people to
study science, technology, engineering, and math, which is so important to the future
of our nation.
The Space Shuttle is an engineering marvel perhaps only exceeded by the station
itself. The shuttle was based on the technology of the 1960s and early 1970s.
It had to overcome significant challenges to make it reusable. Perhaps the greatest
challenges were the main engines and the Thermal Protection System.
The program has seen terrible tragedy in its 3 decades of operation, yet it has also
seen marvelous success. One of the most notable successes is the Hubble Space
Telescope, a program that would have been a failure without the shuttle’s capability
to rendezvous, capture, repair, as well as upgrade. Now Hubble is a shining example
of success admired by people around the world.
As the program comes to a close, it is important to capture the legacy of the shuttle
for future generations. That is what “Wings In Orbit” does for space fans, students,
engineers, and scientists. This book, written by the men and women who made
the program possible, will serve as an excellent reference for building future space
vehicles. We are proud to have played a small part in making it happen.
John Young
STS-1 Commander
Robert Crippen
STS-1 Pilot
Page v
“...because I know also life is a shuttle.
I am in haste; go along with me...”
– Shakespeare,
The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act V Scene 1
We, the editors of this book, can relate to this portion of a quote by the English
bard, for our lives have been entwined with the Space Shuttle Program for over
3 decades. It is often said that all grand journeys begin with a small first step.
Our journey to document the scientific and engineering accomplishments of this
magnificent winged vehicle began with an audacious proposal: to capture the
passion of those who devoted their energies to its success while answering the
question “What are the most significant accomplishments?” of the longest-
operating human spaceflight program in our nation’s history. This is intended to
be an honest, accurate, and easily understandable account of the research and
innovation accomplished during the era. We hope you will enjoy this book and
take pride in the nation’s investment in NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.
We are fortunate to be a part of an outstanding team that enabled us to tell this
story. Our gratitude to all members of the Editorial Board who guided us patiently
and willingly through various stages of this undertaking.
We are grateful to all the institutions and people that
worked on the book. (See appendix for complete list.) Each NASA field center
and Headquarters contributed to it, along with many NASA retirees and
industry/academic experts. There are a few who made exceptional contributions.
The following generously provided insights about the Space Shuttle Program:
James Abrahamson, Arnold Aldrich, Stephen Altemus, Kenneth Baldwin,
Baruch Blumberg, Aaron Cohen, Ellen Conners, Robert Crippen, Jeanie Engle,
Jack Fischer, William Gerstenmaier, Milton Heflin, Thomas Holloway,
Jack Kaye, Christopher Kraft, David Leckrone, Robert Lindstrom, William Lucas,
Glynn Lunney, Hans Mark, John Mather, Leonard Nicholson, William Parsons,
Brewster Shaw, Robert Sieck, Bob Thompson, J.R.Thompson, Thomas Utsman,
Edward Weiler, John Young, and Laurence Young.
We also gratefully acknowledge the support of Susan Breeden for technical editing,
Cindy Bush for illustrations, and Perry Jackson for graphic design.
Preface and
Table of Contents
Foreword—John Young and Robert Crippen
Preface and Acknowledgments
Table of Contents
viii Editorial Board
Poem—Witnessing the Launch of the Shuttle Atlantis
Introduction—Charles Bolden
Magnificent Flying Machine—
A Cathedral to Technology
The Historical Legacy
12 Major Milestones
32 The Accidents: A Nation’s Tragedy, NASA’s Challenge
42 National Security
The Space Shuttle and Its Operations
54 The Space Shuttle
74 Processing the Shuttle for Flight
94 Flight Operations
110 Extravehicular Activity Operations and Advancements
130 Shuttle Builds the International Space Station
Engineering Innovations
158 Propulsion
182 Thermal Protection Systems
200 Materials and Manufacturing
226 Aerodynamics and Flight Dynamics
242 Avionics, Navigation, and Instrumentation
256 Software
270 Structural Design
286 Robotics and Automation
302 Systems Engineering for Life Cycle
of Complex Systems
Page vii
Major Scientific Discoveries
320 The Space Shuttle and Great Observatories
344 Atmospheric Observations
and Earth Imaging
360 Mapping the Earth: Radars and Topography
370 Astronaut Health and Performance
408 The Space Shuttle: A Platform That Expanded
the Frontiers of Biology
420 Microgravity Research in the Space Shuttle Era
444 Space Environments
Social, Cultural, and Educational Legacies
460 NASA Reflects America’s Changing Opportunities;
NASA Impacts US Culture
470 Education: Inspiring Students as Only NASA Can
Industries and Spin-offs
The Shuttle Continuum, Role of Human Spaceflight
499 President George H.W. Bush
500 Pam Leestma and Neme Alperstein
Elementary School Teachers
502 Norman Augustine
Former President and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation
504 John Logsdon
Former Director of Space Policy Institute, Georgetown University
506 Canadian Space Agency
509 General John Dailey
Director of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
510 Leah Jamieson
John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering,
Purdue University
512 Michael Griffin
Former NASA Administrator
518 Flight Information
530 Program Managers/Acknowledgments
531 Selected Readings
535 Acronyms
536 Contributors’ Biographies
542 Index
Wayne Hale
Iwan Alexander
Frank Benz
Steven Cash
Robert Crippen
Steven Dick
Michael Duncan
Diane Evans
Steven Hawley
Milton Heflin
David Leckrone
James Owen
Robert Sieck
Michael Wetmore
John Young
Editorial Board
Page ix
Witnessing the Launch of
the Shuttle Atlantis
Howard Nemerov
Poet Laureate of the United States
1963-1964 and 1988-1990
So much of life in the world is waiting, that
This day was no exception, so we waited
All morning long and into the afternoon.
I spent some of the time remembering
Dante, who did the voyage in the mind
Alone, with no more nor heavier machinery
Than the ghost of a girl giving him guidance;
And wondered if much was lost to gain all this
New world of engine and energy, where dream
Translates into deed. But when the thing went up
It was indeed impressive, as if hell
Itself opened to send its emissary
In search of heaven or “the unpeopled world”
(thus Dante of doomed Ulysses) “behind the sun.”
So much of life in the world is memory
That the moment of the happening itself—
So much with noise and smoke and rising clear
To vanish at the limit of our vision
Into the light blue light of afternoon—
Appeared no more, against the void in aim,
Than the flare of a match in sunlight, quickly snuffed.
What yet may come of this? We cannot know.
Great things are promised, as the promised land
Promised to Moses that he would not see
But a distant sight of, though the children would.
The world is made of pictures of the world,
And the pictures change the world into another world
We cannot know, as we knew not this one.
© Howard Nemerov. Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Al rights reserved.
It is an honor to be invited to write the introduction for this tribute to the Space Shuttle,
yet the invitation presents quite an emotional challenge. In many ways, I lament the
coming of the end of a great era in human spaceflight. The shuttle has been a crown
jewel in NASA’s human spaceflight program for over 3 decades. This spectacular flying
machine has served as a symbol of our nation’s prowess in science and technology
as well as a demonstration of our “can-do” attitude. As we face the fleet’s retirement,
it is appropriate to reflect on its accomplishments and celebrate its contributions.
The Space Shuttle Program was a major leap forward in our quest for space exploration.
It prepared us for our next steps with a fully operational International Space Station and
has set the stage for journeys to deep-space destinations such as asteroids and, eventually,
Mars. Our desire to explore more of our solar system is ambitious and risky, but its
rewards for all humanity are worth the risks. We, as a nation and a global community,
are on the threshold of taking an even greater leap toward that goal.
All the dedicated professionals who worked in the Space Shuttle team—NASA civil
servants and contractors alike—deserve to be proud of their accomplishments in
spite of the constant presence of skeptics and critics and the demoralizing losses of
Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) and their dedicated crews. Some of these
scientists and engineers contributed to a large portion of this book. Their passion and
enthusiasm is evident throughout the pages, and their words will take you on a journey
filled with challenges and triumphs. In my view, this is a truly authentic account by
people who were part of the teams that worked tirelessly to make the program
successful. They have been the heart, mind, spirit, and very soul that brought these
amazing flying machines to life.
Unlike any engineering challenge before, the Space Shuttle launched as a rocket, served
as an orbital workstation and space habitat, and landed as a glider. The American
engineering that produced the shuttle was innovative for its time, providing capabilities
beyond our expectations in all disciplines related to the process of launching, working
in space, and returning to Earth. We learned with every succeeding flight how to operate
more efficiently and effectively in space, and this knowledge will translate to all future
space vehicles and the ability of their crews to live and work in space.
The Space Shuttle was a workhorse for space operations. Satellite launching, repair,
and retrieval provided the satellite industry with important capabilities. The Department
of Defense, national security organizations, and commercial companies used the shuttle
to support their ambitious missions and the resultant accomplishments. Without the
shuttle and its servicing mission crews, the magnificent Hubble Space Telescope
astronomical science discoveries would not have been possible. Laboratories carried
in the payload bay of the shuttles provided opportunities to use microgravity’s attributes
for understanding human health, physical and material sciences, and biology. Shuttle
Charles Bolden
Page xi
research advanced our understanding of planet Earth, our own star—the sun—and our
atmosphere and oceans. From orbit aboard the shuttle, astronaut crews collected hundreds
of thousands of Earth observation images and mapped 90% of Earth’s land surface.
During this 30-year program, we changed dramatically as a nation. We witnessed
increased participation of women and minorities, the international community, and the
aerospace industry in science and technology—changes that have greatly benefitted
NASA, our nation, and the world. Thousands of students, from elementary school
through college and graduate programs, participated in shuttle programs. These students
expanded their own horizons—from direct interactions with crew members on orbit,
to student-led payloads, to activities at launch and at their schools—and were inspired to
seek careers that benefit our nation.
International collaboration increased considerably during this era. Canada provided
the robotic arm that helped with satellite repair and served as a mobile crew platform
for performing extravehicular activities during construction of the International Space
Station and upgrades and repairs to Hubble. The European Space Agency provided
a working laboratory to be housed in the payload bay during the period in which the
series of space laboratory missions was flown. Both contributions were technical and
engineering marvels. Japan, along with member nations of the European Space Agency
and Canada, had many successful science and engineering payloads. This international
collaboration thus provided the basis for necessary interactions and cooperation.
My personal change and growth as a Space Shuttle crew member are emblematic of the
valuable contribution to strengthening the global community that operating the shuttle
encouraged and facilitated. I was honored and privileged to close out my astronaut
career as commander of the first Russian-American shuttle mission, STS-60 (1994).
From space, Earth has no geographic boundaries between nations, and the common
dreams of the people of these myriad nations are realizable when we work toward the
common mission of exploring our world from space. The International Space Station,
the completion of which was only possible with the shuttle, further emphasizes the
importance of international cooperation as nations including Russia, Japan, Canada, and
the member nations of the European Space Agency join the United States to ensure that
our quest for ever-increasing knowledge of our universe continues to move forward.
We have all been incredibly blessed to have been a part of the Space Shuttle Program.
The “Remarkable Flying Machine” has been an unqualified success and will
remain forever a testament to the ingenuity, inventiveness, and dedication of the
NASA-contractor team. Enjoy this book. Learn more about the shuttle through the eyes
of those who helped make it happen, and be proud of the human ingenuity that made
this complex space vehicle a timeless icon and an enduring legacy.
Magnificent Flying Machine—A Cathedral to Technology
Page 1
Flying Machine—
A Cathedral
to Technology
Certain physical objects become icons of their time. Popular sentiment
transmutes shape, form, and outline into a mythic embodiment of the era
so that abstracted symbols evoke even the hopes and aspirations of the
day. These icons are instantly recognizable even by the merest suggestion
of their shape: a certain wasp-waisted soft drink bottle epitomizes
America of the 1950s; the outline of a gothic cathedral evokes the
Middle Ages of Europe; the outline of a steam locomotive memorializes
the American expansion westward in the late 19th century; a clipper ship
under full sail idealizes global trade in an earlier part of that century.
America’s Space Shuttle has become such an icon, symbolizing American
ingenuity and leadership at the turn of the 21st century. The outline of
the delta-winged Orbiter has permeated the public consciousness. This
stylized element has been used in myriad illustrations, advertisements,
reports, and video snippets—in short, everywhere. It is a fair question to
ask why the Space Shuttle has achieved such status.
Page 2
Magnificent Flying Machine—A Cathedral to Technology
Flying Machine—
A Cathedral
to Technology
Wayne Hale
The first great age of space exploration
culminated with the historic lunar
landing in July 1969. Following that
achievement, the space policymakers
looked back to the history of aviation as
a model for the future of space travel.
The Space Shuttle was conceived as a
way to exploit the resources of the new
frontier. Using an aviation analogy,
the shuttle would be the Douglas DC-3
of space. That aircraft is generally
considered to be the first commercially
successful air transport. The shuttle was
to be the first commercially successful
space transport. This impossible leap
was not realized, an unrealistic goal
that appears patently obvious in
retrospect, yet it haunts the history of
the shuttle to this day. Much of the
criticism of the shuttle originates from
this overhyped initial concept.
In fact, the perceived relationship
between the history of aviation and the
promise of space travel continues to
motivate space policymakers. In some
ways, the analogy that compares space
with aviation can be very illustrative.
So, if an unrealistic comparison for
the shuttle is the leap from the 1903
Wright Flyer to the DC-3 transport of
1935 in a single technological bound,
what is a more accurate comparison?
If the first crewed spacecraft of 1961—
either Alan Shepard’s Mercury or
Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok—are accurately
the analog of the
Wright brothers’ first
aircraft, the Apollo
spacecraft of 1968
should properly be
compared with
the Wright brothers’
1909 “Model B”—
their first commercial
sale. The “B” was
the product of
6 years of tinkering,
and adjustments, but
were only two major
iterations of aircraft
design. In much the
same way, Apollo
was the technological
inheritor of two
iterations of spacecraft
design in 7 years.
The Space Shuttle
of 1981—coming 20
years after the first
spaceflights—could be compared with
the aircraft of the mid 1920s. In fact,
there is a good analogy in the history of
aviation: the Ford Tri-Motor of 1928.
The Ford Tri-Motor was the leap from
experimental to operational and had the
potential to be economically effective
as well. It was a huge improvement
in aviation—it was revolutionary,
flexible, and capable. The vehicle
carried passengers and the US mail.
Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd used
the Ford Tri-Motor on his historic
flyover of the North Pole. But the
Ford Tri-Motor was not quite reliable
enough, economical enough, or safe
enough to fire off a successful and
vibrant commercial airline business;
just like the Space Shuttle.
Magnificent Flying Machine—A Cathedral to Technology
Page 3
Lower left: 1903 Wright Flyer; right: Douglas aircraft DC-3 of 1935. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum,Washington, DC. (photos by Wayne Hale)
Top: 1928 Ford Tri-Motor; above: 1909 Wright
“Model B.” Smithsonian National Air and Space
Museum, Washington,DC.(photos by Wayne Hale)
But here the aviation analogy breaks
down. In aviation history, advances are
made not just because of the passage
of calendar time but because there are
hundreds of different aircraft designs
with thousands of incremental
technology advances tested in flight
between the “B” and the Tri-Motor.
Even so, the aviation equivalent
compression of decades of
technological advance does not do
justice to the huge technological leap
from expendable rockets and capsules
to a reusable, winged, hypersonic,
cargo-carrying spacecraft. This was
accomplished with no intermediate
steps. Viewed from that perspective,
the Space Shuttle is truly a wonder.
No doubt the shuttle is but one step
of many on the road to the stars,
but it was a giant leap indeed.
That is what this book is about: not
what might have been or what was
impossibly promised, but what
was actually achieved and what was
actually delivered. Viewed against this
background, the Space Shuttle was a
tremendous engineering achievement—
a vehicle that enabled nearly routine and
regular access to space for hundreds of
people, and a profoundly vital link in
scientific advancement. The vision of
this book is to take a clear-eyed look at
what the shuttle accomplished and the
shuttle’s legacy to the world.
Superlative Achievements
of the Space Shuttle
For almost half a century, academic
research, study, calculations, and
myriad papers have been written about
the problems and promises of
controlled, winged hypersonic flight
through the atmosphere. The Space
Shuttle was the largest, fastest, winged
hypersonic aircraft in history. Literally
everything else had been a computer
model, a wind tunnel experiment, or
some subscale vehicle launched on
a rocket platform. The shuttle flew at
25 times the speed of sound; regularly.
The next fastest crewed vehicle—the
venerable X-15—flew at its peak at
seven times the speed of sound.
Following the X-15, the next fastest
crewed vehicle was the military SR-71,
which could achieve three times the
speed of sound. Both the X-15 and the
SR-71 were retired years ago. Flight
above about Mach 2 is not practiced
today. If the promise of regular,
commercial hypersonic flight is ever to
come to fruition, the lessons learned
from the shuttle will be an important
foundation. For example, the specifics
of aerodynamic control change
significantly with these extreme speeds.
Prior to the first flight, computations
for the shuttle were found to be
seriously in error when actual postflight
data were reviewed. Variability in
the atmosphere at extreme altitudes
would have gone undiscovered except
for the regular passage of the shuttle
through regions unnavigable any other
way. Serious engineering obstacles
with formidable names—hypersonic
boundary layer transition, for
example—must be understood and
overcome, and cannot be studied in
wind tunnels or computer simulations.
Only by flight tests will real data
help us understand and tame these
dragons of the unknown ocean of
hypersonic flight.
Most authorities agree that getting
back safely from Earth orbit is a more
difficult task than achieving Earth orbit
in the first place. All the tremendous
energy that went into putting the
spacecraft into orbit must be cancelled
out. For any vehicle’s re-entry into
Earth’s atmosphere, this is principally
accomplished by air friction—turning
kinetic energy into heat. Objects
entering the Earth’s atmosphere are
almost always rapidly vaporized by
the friction generated by the enormous
velocity of space travel. Early spacecraft
carried huge and bulky ablative heat
shields, which were good for one use
only. The Space Shuttle Orbiter was
completely reusable, and was covered
with Thermal Protection Systems from
nose to tail. The thermal shock standing
9 mm (0.3 in.) off the front of the wing
leading edge exceeded the temperature
of the visible surface of the sun:
8,000°C (14,000°F). At such an extreme
temperature, metals don’t melt—they
boil. Intense heating went on for
almost half an hour during a normal
deceleration from 8 km (5 miles) per
second to full stop. Don’t forget that
weight was at a premium. A special
carbon fiber cloth impregnated with
carbon resin was molded to an
aerodynamic shape. This was the
Page 4
Magnificent Flying Machine—A Cathedral to Technology
The second X-15 rocket plane (56-6671) is
shown with two external fuel tanks, which were
added during its conversion to the X-15A-2
configuration in the mid 1960s.
so-called reinforced
carbon-carbon on the
wing leading edge and
nose cone. This amazing
composite was only
5 mm (0.2 in.) thick,
but the aluminum
structure of the Orbiter
was completely reliant
on the reinforced
carbon-carbon for
protection. In areas of
the shuttle where slightly
lower peak temperatures
were experienced, the
airframe was covered
with silica-based tiles.
These tiles were mostly
empty space but
provided protection from
temperatures to 1,000°C
(2,000°F). Extraordinarily lightweight
but structurally robust, easily formed to
whatever shape needed, over 24,000
tiles coated the bottom and sides of the
Orbiter. In demonstrations of the tile’s
effectiveness, a technician held one side
of a shuttle tile in a bare hand while
pointing a blowtorch at the opposite
side. These amazing Thermal Protection
Systems—all invented for the shuttle—
brought 110 metric tons (120 tons) of
vehicle, crew, and payload back to Earth
through the inferno that is re-entry.
Nor is the shuttle’s imaginative
navigation system comparable to any
other system flying. The navigation
system kept track of not only the
shuttle’s position during re-entry, but
also the total energy available to the
huge glider. The system managed
energy, distance, altitude, speed, and
even variations in the winds and
weather to deliver the shuttle precisely
to the runway threshold. The logic
contained in the re-entry guidance
software was the hard-won knowledge
from successful landings.
So much for re-entry. All real rocket
scientists know that propulsion is
problem number one for space travel.
The shuttle excelled in both solid- and
liquid-fueled propulsion elements.
The reusable Solid Rocket Booster
(SRB) motors were the largest and most
powerful solid rocket motors ever
flown. Solid rockets are notable for
their high thrust-to-weight ratio
and the SRB motors epitomized that.
Each one developed a thrust of almost
12 meganewtons (3 million pounds) but
weighed only 600,000 kg (1.3 million
pounds) at ignition (with weight
decreasing rapidly after that). This
was the equivalent motive power of
36,000 diesel locomotives that together
would weigh 26 billion kg (57 billion
pounds). The shuttle’s designers were
grounded in aviation in the 1950s and
thought of the SRB motors as extreme
JATO bottles—those small solid
rockets strapped to the side of
overloaded military transports taking
off from short airfields. (JATO is short
for jet-assisted takeoff, where “jet”
is a generic term covering even rocket
engines.) Those small, strap-on solid
rocket motors paled in comparison with
the SRB motors—some JATO bottles
indeed. Within milliseconds of ignition,
the finely tuned combustion processes
inside the SRB motor generated
internal pressure of over 7 million
pascals (1,000 pounds per square inch
[psi]). The thrust was “throttled” by the
shape in which the solid propellant was
cast inside the case. This was critical
because thrust had to be reduced as the
shuttle accelerated through the speed of
maximum aerodynamic pressure. For
the first 50 years of spaceflight, these
reuseable boosters were the largest
solid rockets ever flown.
Magnificent Flying Machine—A Cathedral to Technology
Page 5
This view of the suspended
Orbiter Discovery shows the
underside covered with Thermal
Protection System tiles.
The Solid Rocket Boosters operated in parallel
with the main engines for the first 2 minutes
of flight to provide the additional thrust needed
for the Orbiter to escape the gravitational pull of
the Earth. At an altitude of approximately 45 km
(24 nautical miles), the boosters separated
from the Orbiter/External Tank, descended on
parachutes, and landed in the Atlantic Ocean.
They were recovered by ships, returned to land,
and refurbished for reuse. The boosters also
assisted in guiding the entire vehicle during
initial ascent. Thrust of both boosters was equal
to over 2 million kg (over 5 million pounds).
Development of the liquid-fueled Space
Shuttle Main Engine was considered
an impossible task in the mid 1970s.
Larger liquid-fueled rockets had been
developed—most notably the Saturn V
first-stage engines, the famous F-1
engine that developed three times the
thrust of the shuttle main engines.
But the F-1 engines burned kerosene
rather than hydrogen and their “gas
mileage” was much lower than the
shuttle main engines. In fact, no more
efficient, liquid-fueled rocket engines
have ever been built. Getting to orbit
requires enormous amounts of energy.
The “mpg” rating of these main
engines was unparalleled in the history
of rocket manufacture. The laws of
thermodynamics define the maximum
efficiency of any “heat engine,” whether
it is the gasoline engine that powers an
automobile, or a big power plant that
generates electricity, or a rocket engine.
Different thermodynamic “cycles”
have different possible efficiencies.
Automobile engines operating on the
Otto cycle typically are 15% of the
maximum theoretical efficiency.
The shuttle main engines operating
on the rocket cycle achieved 99.5% of
the maximum theoretical efficiency.
To put the power of the main engines
in everyday terms: if your car engine
developed the same power per pound as
these engines, your automobile would
be powered by something about the size
and weight of a loaf of bread. And it
would cost less than $100.00. More
efficient engines have never been made,
no matter what measure is used:
horsepower to weight, horsepower to
cost. Nor is the efficiency standard
likely to ever be exceeded by any other
chemical rocket.
So far, this has been about the basic
problem in any journey—getting there
and getting back. But the shuttle was a
space truck, a heavy-lift launch vehicle
in the same class as the Saturn V moon
rocket. In fact, over half of all the mass
put in Earth orbit—and that includes
all rockets from all the nations of the
world from 1957 until 2010—was
put there by the shuttle. Think of that.
The shuttle lofted more mass to Earth
orbit than all the Saturn Vs, Saturn Is,
Atlases, Deltas, Protons, Zenits,
and Long Marches, etc., combined.
And what about all the mass brought
safely home from space? Ninety-seven
percent came home with the shuttle.
The Space Shuttle deployed some
of the heaviest-weight upper stages
for interplanetary probes. The largest
geosynchronous satellites were
launched by the shuttle. What a truck.
What a transportation system.
And Science?
How much science was accomplished
by the Space Shuttle? Start with the
study of the stars. What has the shuttle
done for astronomy? It brought us closer
to the heavens. Shuttle had mounted
telescopes operated directly by the crew
to study the heavens. Not only did the
shuttle launch the Compton Gamma
Ray Observatory, the crew saved it by
fixing its main antenna. Astronauts
deployed the orbiting Chandra X-ray
Observatory and the international polar
star probe Ulysses. A series of
astronomy experiments, under the
moniker SPARTAN, studied comets,
the sun, and galactic objects. The Solar
Maximum Satellite enabled the study
of our sun. And the granddaddy of
them all, the Hubble Space Telescope,
often called the most productive
scientific instrument of all time, made
discoveries that have rewritten the
textbooks on astronomy, astrophysics,
and cosmology—all because of shuttle.
Don’t forget planetary science. Not
only has Hubble looked deeply at
most of the planets, but the shuttle also
launched the Magellan radar mapper
Page 6
to Venus and the Galileo mission to
Jupiter and its moons.
In Earth science, two Spacelab
Atmospheric Laboratory for
Applications and Science missions
studied our own atmosphere, the Laser
Geodynamic Satellite sphere monitors
the upper reaches of the atmosphere
and aids in mapping, and three Space
Radar Laboratory missions mapped
virtually the entire land mass of the
Earth to a precision previously
unachievable. The Upper Atmosphere
Research satellite was also launched
from the shuttle, as was the Earth
Radiation Budget Satellite and a host
of smaller nanosatellites that pursued a
variety of Earth-oriented topics. Most of
all, the pictures and observations made
by the shuttle crews using cameras and
other handheld instruments provided
long-term observation of the Earth, its
surface, and its climate.
Satellite launches and repairs were
a highlight of shuttle missions,
starting with the Tracking and Data
Relay Satellites that are the backbone
for communications with all NASA
satellites—Earth resources,
astronomical, and many more.
Communications satellites were
launched early in the shuttle’s career
but were reassigned to expendable
launches for a variety of reasons.
Space repair and recovery of satellites
started with the capture and repair of the
Solar Maximum Satellite in 1984 and
continued with satellite recovery and
repair of two HS-376 communications
satellites in 1985 and the repair of
Syncom-IV that same year. The most
productive satellite repair involved five
repetitive shuttle missions to the Hubble
Space Telescope to upgrade its systems
and instruments on a regular basis.
Biomedical research also was a
hallmark of many shuttle missions.
Not only were there six dedicated
Spacelab missions studying life
sciences, but there were also countless
smaller experiments on the effects of
microgravity (not quite zero gravity)
on various life forms: from microbes
and viruses, through invertebrates and
insects, to mammals, primates, and
finally humans. This research yielded
valuable insight in the workings of the
human body, with ramifications for
general medical care and disease cure
and prevention. The production of
pharmaceuticals in space has been
investigated with mixed success, but
practical production requires lower cost
transportation than the shuttle provided.
Finally, note that nine shuttle flights
specifically looked at materials science
questions, including how to grow
crystals in microgravity, materials
processing of all kinds, lubrication, fluid
mechanics, and combustion dynamics—
all without the presence of gravity.
Magnificent Flying Machine—A Cathedral to Technology
Backdropped by a cloud-covered part of Earth,
Space Shuttle Discovery approaches the
International Space Station during STS-124 (2008)
rendezvous and docking operations.
The second component of the Japan Aerospace
Exploration Agency's Kibo laboratory,
the Japanese Pressurized Module, is visible in
Discovery's cargo bay.
Magnificent Flying Machine—A Cathedral to Technology
Page 7
Laser Geodynamic Satellite dedicated to
high-precision laser ranging. It was launched
on STS-52 (1992).
View from the Space
Shuttle Columbia’s cabin
of the Spacelab science
module, hosting 16 days
of Neurolab research.
(STS-90 [1998] is in
the center.) This picture
clearly depicts the
configuration of the tunnel
that leads from the cabin
to the module in the
center of the cargo bay.
Of all the spacewalks (known as
extravehicular activities) conducted
in all the spaceflights of the world,
more than three-quarters of them were
based from the Space Shuttle or with
shuttle-carried crew members at the
International Space Station (ISS)
with the shuttle vehicle attached and
supporting. The only “untethered”
spacewalks were executed from the
shuttle. Those crew members were
buoyed by the knowledge that,
should their backpacks fail, the shuttle
could swiftly come to their rescue.
The final and crowning achievement
of the shuttle was to build the ISS.
The shuttle was always considered
only part of the future of space
infrastructure. The construction and
servicing of space stations was one of
the design goals for the shuttle. The
ISS—deserving of a book in its own
right—is the largest space international
engineering project in the history of the
world. The ISS and the Space Shuttle
are two sides of the same coin: the ISS
could not be constructed without the
shuttle, and the shuttle would have lost
a major reason for its existence without
the ISS. In addition to the scientific
accomplishments of the ISS and the
engineering marvel of its construction,
the ISS is important as one of the
shining examples of the power of
international cooperation for the good
of all humanity. The shuttle team
was always international due to the
Canadian contributions of the robot
arm, the international payloads, and
the international spacefarers. But
participation in the construction of the
ISS brought international cooperation to
a new level, and the entire shuttle team
was transformed by that experience.
The Astronauts
In the final analysis, space travel is all
about people. In 133 flights, the Space
Shuttle provided nearly 850 seats to
orbit. Many people have been to orbit
more than once, so the total number
of different people who have flown to
space on all spacecraft (Vostok,
Mercury, Voskhod, Gemini, Soyuz,
Apollo, Shenzhou, and the shuttle)
in the last 50 years is just under 500.
Of that number, over 400 have flown on
the Space Shuttle. Almost three times
as many people flew to space on the
Page 8
shuttle than on all other vehicles from
all countries of the world combined.
If the intent was to transform space
and the opening of the frontier to more
people, the shuttle accomplished this.
Fliers included politicians, officials
from other agencies, scientists of all
types, and teachers. Probably most
telling, these spacefarers represented a
multiplicity of ethnicities, genders, and
citizenships. The shuttle truly became
the people’s spaceship.
Fourteen people died flying on the
shuttle in two accidents. They too
represented the broadest spectrum of
humanity. In 11flights, Apollo lost
no astronauts in space—although
Apollo 13 was a very close call—
and only three astronauts in a ground
accident. Soyuz, like shuttle, had two
fatal in-flight accidents but lost only
four souls due to the smaller carrying
capacity. The early days of aviation
were far bloodier, even though the
altitudes and energies were a fraction
of those of orbital flight.
Magnificent Flying Machine—A Cathedral to Technology
Anchored to a foot restraint on Space Shuttle Atlantis' remote manipulator system robotic arm,
Astronaut John Olivas, STS-117 (2007), moves toward Atlantis' port orbital maneuvering system
pod that was damaged during the shuttle's climb to orbit. During the repair, Olivas pushed the
turned-up portion of the thermal blanket back into position, used a medical stapler to secure
the layers of the blanket, and pinned it in place against adjacent thermal tile.
Space Shuttle Discovery docked to the International Space Station is featured in this image
photographed by one of the STS-119 (2009) crew members during the mission's first scheduled
extravehicular activity.
How Do We Rate the
Space Shuttle?
Did shuttle have the power of thousands
of diesel locomotives? Was it the most
efficient rocket system ever built?
Certainly it was the only winged space
vehicle that flew from orbit as a
hypersonic glider. And it was the only
reusable space vehicle ever built except
for the Soviet Buran (“Snowflake”),
which was built to be reusable but only
flew once. Imitation is the sincerest form
of flattery; the Buran was the greatest
compliment the shuttle ever had.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, the world’s
experimental aircraft flew sequentially
faster and higher.The X-15 even allowed
six people to earn their astronaut wings
for flying above 116,000 m (380,000 ft)
in a parabolic suborbital trajectory. If the
exigencies of the Cold War—the state
of conflict, tension, and competition that
existed between the United States and
the Soviet Union and their respective
allies from the mid 1940s to the early
1990s—had not forced a rapid entry
into space on the top of intercontinental
ballistic missiles, a far different
approach to spaceflight would most
likely have occurred with air-breathing
winged vehicles flying to the top of the
atmosphere and then smaller rocket
stages to orbit. But that buildup
approach didn’t happen. Some
historians think such an approach would
have provided a more sustainable
approach to space than expendable
intercontinental ballistic missile-based
launch systems. Hypersonic flight
continues to be the subject of major
research by the aviation community.
Plans to build winged vehicles that can
take off horizontally and fly all the way
to Earth orbit are still advanced as the
“proper” way to travel into space. Time
will tell if these dreams become reality.
No matter the next steps in space
exploration, the legacy of the Space
Shuttle will be to inspire designers,
planners, and astronauts. Because
building a Space Shuttle was thought
to be impossible, and yet it flew, the
shuttle remains the most remarkable
achievement of its time—a cathedral of
technology and achievement for future
generations to regard with wonder.
Magnificent Flying Machine—A Cathedral to Technology
Page 9
The sun radiates on Space Shuttle Atlantis
as it is positioned to head for space on mission
STS-115 (2006).
Astronaut Joseph Acaba, STS-119 (2009), works the controls of Space Shuttle Discovery’s Shuttle
Robotic Arm on the aft flight deck during Flight Day 1 activities.
Page 10
The Historical Legacy
Page 11
The Historical
Major Milestones
The Accidents: A Nation’s
Tragedy, NASA’s Challenge
National Security
Astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen woke early on the morning
of April 12, 1981, for the second attempted launch of the Space Shuttle
Columbia—the first mission of the Space Shuttle Program. Two days
earlier, the launch had been scrubbed due to a computer software error.
Those working in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory at Johnson
Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, quickly resolved the issue and,
with the problem fixed, the agency scheduled a second try soon after.
Neither crew member expected to launch, however, because so much had
to come together for liftoff to occur.
That morning, they did encounter a serious problem. With fewer than
2 hours until launch, the crew of Space Transportation System (STS)-1
locked the faceplates onto their helmets, only to find that they could not
breathe. To avoid scrubbing the mission, the crew members looked at
the issue and asked Loren Shriver, the astronaut support pilot, to help
them. Finding a problem with the oxygen hose quick disconnect, Shriver
tightened the line with a pair of pliers, and the countdown continued.
At 27 seconds before launch, Crippen realized that this time they were
actually going to fly. His heart raced to 130 beats per minute while
Young’s heart, that of a veteran commander, stayed at a calm 85 beats.
Young later joked, “I was excited too. I just couldn’t get my heart to
beat any faster.” At 7:00 a.m., Columbia launched, making its maiden
voyage into Earth orbit on the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s
historic first human flight into space (1961).
The thousands who had traveled to the beaches of Florida’s coastline
to watch the launch were excited to see the United States return to flying
in space. The last American flight was the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project,
which flew in July 1975 and featured three American astronauts and two
cosmonauts who rendezvoused and docked their spacecraft in orbit.
Millions of others who watched the launch of STS-1 from their television
sets were just as elated. America was back in space.
Page 12
The Historical Legacy
Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Dennis Webb
Like their predecessors, Young and
Crippen became heroes for flying this
mission—the boldest test flight in
history. The shuttle was like no other
vehicle that had flown; it was reusable.
Unlike the space capsules of the
previous generation, the shuttle had not
been tested in space. This was the first
test flight of the Columbia and the only
time astronauts had actually flown a
spacecraft on its first flight. The
primary objective was to prove that the
shuttle could safely launch a crew and
then return safely to Earth. Two days
later, the mission ended and the goal
was accomplished when Young landed
the shuttle at Dryden Flight Research
Center on the Edwards Air Force
Base runway in California. The
spacecraft had worked like a “champ”
in orbit—even with the loss of several
tiles during launch. After landing,
Christopher Kraft, director of JSC, said,
“We just became infinitely smarter.”
Design and Development
It would be a mistake to say that the
first flight of Columbia was the start of
the Space Shuttle Program. The idea
of launching a reusable winged vehicle
was not a new concept. Throughout the
1960s, NASA and the Department of
Defense (DoD) studied such concepts.
Advanced Space Shuttle studies began
in 1968 when the Manned Spacecraft
Center—which later became JSC—
and Marshall Space Flight Center in
Huntsville, Alabama, issued a joint
request for proposal for an integral
launch and re-entry vehicle to study
different configurations for a round-trip
vehicle that could reduce costs, increase
safety, and carry payloads of up to
22,680 kg (50,000 pounds). This
marked the beginning of the design
and development of the shuttle.
Four contractors—General Dynamics/
Convair, Lockheed, McDonnell
Douglas, and North American
Rockwell—received 10-month
contracts to study different approaches
for the integral launch and re-entry
vehicle. Experts examined a number
of designs, from fully reusable vehicles
to the use of expendable rockets.
On completion of these studies, NASA
determined that a two-stage, fully
reusable vehicle met its needs and
would pay off in terms of cost savings.
On April 1, 1969, Maxime Faget,
director of engineering and
development at the Manned Spacecraft
Center, asked 20 people to report to
the third floor of a building that most
thought did not have a third floor.
Because of that, many believed it was
an April Fool’s prank but went anyway.
Once there, they spotted a test bay,
which had three floors, and that was
where they met. Faget then walked
through the door with a balsa wood
model of a plane, which he glided
toward the engineers. “We’re going to
build America’s next spacecraft.
And it’s going to launch like a
spacecraft, it’s going to land like a
plane,” he told the team. America had
not yet landed on the moon, but
NASA’s engineers moved ahead with
plans to create a new space vehicle.
As the contractors and civil servants
explored various configurations for
the next generation of spacecraft, the
Space Task Group, appointed by
President Richard Nixon, issued its
report for future space programs. The
committee submitted three options:
the first and most ambitious featured
a manned Mars landing as early as
1983, a lunar and Earth-orbiting
station, and a lunar surface base; the
second supported a mission to Mars
in 1986; and the third deferred the
Mars landing, providing no scheduled
date for its completion. Included in
the committee’s post-Apollo plans
were a Space Shuttle, referred to as
the Space Transportation System, and
a space station, to be developed
simultaneously. Envisioned as less
costly than the Saturn rocket and
Apollo capsules, which were expended
after only one use, the shuttle would
be reusable and, as a result, make
space travel more routine and less
costly. The shuttle would be capable
of carrying passengers, supplies,
satellites, and other equipment—
much as an airplane ferries people
and their luggage—to and from orbit
at least 100 times before being
retired. The system would support
both the civil and military space
programs and be a cheaper way to
launch satellites. Nixon, the Space
Task Group proposals, and NASA cut
the moon and Mars from their plans.
This left only the shuttle and station
for development, which the agency
hoped to develop in parallel.
The Historical Legacy
Page 13
Maxime Faget, director of engineering and
development at the Manned Spacecraft Center
in 1969, holding a balsa wood model of his
concept of the spaceship that would launch on
a rocket and land on a runway.
The decision to build a shuttle was
extremely controversial, even though
NASA presented the vehicle as
economical—a cost-saver for
taxpayers—when compared with the
large outlays for the Apollo Program.
In fact, in 1970 the shuttle was nearly
defeated by Congress, which was
dealing with high inflation, conflict in
Vietnam, spiraling deficits, and an
economic recession. In April 1970,
representatives in the House narrowly
defeated an amendment to eliminate all
funding for the shuttle. A similar
amendment offered in the Senate was
also narrowly defeated. Minnesota
Senator Walter Mondale explained that
the money NASA requested was
simply the “tip of the iceberg.” He
argued that the $110 million requested
for development that year might be
better spent on urban renewal projects,
veterans’ care, or improving the
environment. Political support for the
program was very tenuous, including
poor support from some scientific and
aerospace leaders.
To garner support for the shuttle and
eliminate the possibility of losing the
program, NASA formed a coalition with
the US Air Force and established a joint
space transportation committee to meet
the needs of the two agencies. As an Air
Force spokesman explained, given the
political and economic realities of the
time, “Quite possibly neither NASA nor
the DoD could justify the shuttle system
alone. But together we can make a
strong case.”
The Space Shuttle design that NASA
proposed did not initially meet the
military’s requirements. The military
needed the ability to conduct a polar
orbit with quick return to a military
airfield. This ability demanded the
now-famous delta wings as opposed
to the originally proposed airplane-like
straight wings. The Air Force also
insisted that it needed a larger payload
bay and heavier lift capabilities to
carry and launch reconnaissance
satellites. A smaller payload bay would
require the Air Force to retain their
expendable launch vehicles and chip
away at the argument forwarded by
NASA about the shuttle’s economy and
utilitarian purpose. The result was a
larger vehicle with more cross-range
landing capability.
Though the president and Congress
had not yet approved the shuttle in
1970, NASA awarded preliminary
design contracts to McDonnell Douglas
and North American Rockwell, thus
beginning the second phase of
development. By awarding two contracts
for the country’s next-generation
spacecraft, NASA signaled its decision
to focus on securing support for the
two-stage reusable space plane over the
station, which received little funding
and was essentially shelved until 1984
when President Ronald Reagan directed
the agency to build a space station
within a decade. In fact, when James
Fletcher became NASA’s administrator
in April 1971, he wholeheartedly
supported the shuttle and proclaimed,
“I don’t want to hear any more about a
space station, not while I am here.”
Fletcher was doggedly determined to
see that the federal government funded
the shuttle, so he worked closely with
the Nixon administration to assure the
program received approval. Realizing
that the $10.5 billion price tag for the
development of the fully reusable,
two-stage vehicle was too high, and
facing massive budget cuts from the
Office of Management and Budget, the
administrator had the agency study the
use of expendable rockets to cut the
high cost and determine the significant
cost savings with a partially reusable
spacecraft as opposed to the proposed
totally reusable one. On learning that
use of an expendable External Tank,
which would provide liquid oxygen
and hydrogen fuel for Orbiter engines,
would decrease costs by nearly half,
NASA chose that technology—thereby
making the program more marketable
to Congress and the administration.
Robert Thompson, former Space
Shuttle Program manager, believed that
the decision to use an expendable
External Tank for the Space Shuttle
Main Engines was “perhaps the single
most important configuration decision
made in the Space Shuttle Program,”
resulting in a smaller, lighter shuttle.
“In retrospect,” Thompson explained,
“the basic decision to follow a less
complicated development path at the
future risk of possible higher operating
costs was, in my judgment, a very wise
choice.” This decision was one of the
program’s major milestones, and the
decreased costs for development had
the desired effect.
Presidential Approval
Nixon made the announcement in
support of the Space Shuttle Program
at his Western White House in San
Clemente, California, on January 5,
1972. Believing that the shuttle was a
good investment, he asked the space
agency to stress that the shuttle was not
an expensive toy. The president
highlighted the benefits of the civilian
and military applications and
emphasized the importance of
international cooperation, which
would be ushered in with the program.
Ordinary people from across the
globe, not just American test pilots,
could fly on board the shuttle.
From the start, Nixon envisioned the
shuttle as a truly international program.
Even before the president approved
the program, NASAAdministrator
Thomas Paine, at Nixon’s urging,
approached other nations about
participating. As NASA’s budget
worsened, partnering with other nations
became more appealing to the space
agency. In 1973, Europe agreed to
develop and build the Spacelab, which
Page 14
The Historical Legacy
would be housed in the payload bay of
the Orbiter and serve as an in-flight
space research facility. The Canadians
agreed to build the Shuttle Robotic Arm
in 1975, making the Space Shuttle
Program international in scope.
Having the Nixon administration
support the shuttle was a major hurdle,
but NASA still had to contend with
several members of Congress who
disagreed with the administration’s
decision. In spite of highly vocal
critics, both the House and Senate
voted in favor of NASA’s authorization
bill, committing the United States to
developing the Space Shuttle and,
thereby, marking another milestone
for the program.
To further reduce costs, NASA
decided to use Solid Rocket Boosters,
which were less expensive to build
because they were a proven technology
used by the Air Force in the Minuteman
intercontinental ballistic missile
program. As NASAAdministrator
Fletcher explained, “I think we have
made the right decision at the right
time. And I think it is the right price.”
Solids were less expensive to develop
and cost less than liquid boosters. To
save additional funds, NASA planned
to recover the Solid Rocket Boosters
and refurbish them for future flights.
Contracting out the Work
Two days after NASA selected the
parallel burn Solid Rocket Motor
propellant configuration, the agency
put out a request for proposal for the
development of the Orbiter. Four
companies responded. NASA selected
North American Rockwell, awarding
the company a $2.6 billion contract.
The Orbiter that Rockwell agreed to
build illustrated the impact the Air
Force had on the design. The payload
bay measured 18.3 by 4.6 m (60 by
15 ft), to house the military’s satellites.
The Orbiter also had delta wings and
the ability to deploy a 29,483-kg
(65,000-pound) payload from a
due-east orbit.
As NASA studied alternative concepts
for the program, the agency issued a
request for proposal for the Space
Shuttle Main Engines. In the
summer of 1971, NASA selected
the Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell.
Rocketdyne built the large, liquid fuel
rocket engines used on the NASA
Saturn V (moon rocket). However, the
shuttle engines differed dramatically
from their predecessors. As James
Kingsbury, the director of Science and
Engineering at the Marshall Space
Flight Center, explained, “It was an
unproven technology. Nobody had ever
had a rocket engine that operated at the
pressures and temperatures of that
engine.” Because of the necessary lead
time needed to develop the world’s
first reusable rocket engine, the
selection of the Space Shuttle Main
Engines contractor preceded other
Orbiter decisions, but a contract protest
delayed development by 10 months.
Work on the engines officially began
in April 1972.
Other large companies benefiting
from congressional approval of the
Space Shuttle Program included
International Business Machines,
Martin Marietta, and Thiokol. The
computer giant International Business
Machines would provide five on-board
computers, design and maintain their
software, and support testing in all
ground facilities that used the flight
software and general purpose
computers, including the Shuttle
Avionics Integration Laboratory, the
Shuttle Mission Simulator, and other
facilities. Thiokol received the
contract for the solid rockets, and
NASA selected Martin Marietta to
build the External Tank. Although
Rockwell received the contract for
the Orbiter, the corporation parceled
out work to other rival aerospace
The Historical Legacy
Page 15
companies: Grumman built the wings;
Convair Aerospace agreed to build the
mid-fuselage; and McDonnell Douglas
managed the Orbiter rocket engines,
which maneuvered the vehicle in space.
Rollout tests of the Solid Rocket Boosters. Mobile Launcher Platform number 3, with twin Solid Rocket
Boosters bolted to it, inches along the crawlerway at various speeds up to 1.6 km (1 mile) per hour in
an effort to gather vibration data. The boosters are braced at the top for stability. Data from these tests,
completed September 2004, helped develop maintenance requirements on the transport equipment
and the flight hardware.
Delays and Budget Challenges
Although NASA received approval
for the program in 1972, inflation and
budget cuts continually ate away at
funding throughout the rest of the
decade. Over time, this resulted in slips
in the schedule as the agency had to
make do with effectively fewer dollars
each year and eventually cut or
decrease spending for less-prominent
projects, or postpone them. This also
led to higher total development costs.
Technical problems with the tiles,
Orbiter heat shield, and main engines
also resulted in delays, which caused
development costs to increase. As a
result, NASA kept extending the first
launch date.
The shuttle continued to evolve as
engineers worked to shave weight
from the vehicle to save costs.
In 1974, engineers decided to remove
the shuttle’s air-breathing engines,
which would have allowed a powered
landing of the vehicle. The engines
were to be housed in the payload
bay and would have cost more than
$300 million to design and build, but
Page 16
they took up too much space in the
bay and added substantial complexity
to the design. Thus, the agency decided
to go forward with the idea of an
unpowered landing to glide the Orbiter
and crew safely to a runway.
This decision posed an important
question for engineers: how to bring
the Orbiter from California, where
Rockwell was building it, to the launch
sites in Florida, Vandenberg Air Force
Base, or test sites in Alabama. NASA
considered several options: hanging
the Orbiter from a dirigible; carrying
the vehicle on a ship; or modifying a
Lockheed C-5A or a Boeing 747
to ferry the Orbiter in a piggyback
configuration on the back of the plane.
Eventually, NASA selected the 747
and purchased a used plane from
American Airlines in 1974 to conduct a
series of tests before transforming the
plane into the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.
Modifications of the 747 began in 1976.
The Space Shuttle Main Engines were the first rocket engines to be reused from one mission to the
next. This picture is of Engine 0526, tested on July 7, 2003. A remote camera captures a close-up view
of a Space Shuttle Main Engine during a test firing at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock
County, Mississippi.
Final Testing
On September 17, 1976, Americans
got an initial glimpse of NASA’s first
shuttle, the Enterprise, when a red,
white, and blue tractor pulled the glider
out of the hangar at the Air Force Plant
in Palmdale, California. Enterprise
was not a complete shuttle: it had no
propellant lines and the propulsion
systems (the main engines and orbital
maneuvering pods) were mock-ups.
Originally, NASA intended to name
the vehicle Constitution in honor of the
bicentennial of the United States, but
fans of the television show Star Trek
appealed to NASA and President
Gerald Ford, who eventually relented
and decided to name the shuttle after
Captain Kirk’s spaceship. Speaking
at the unveiling, Fletcher proclaimed
that the debut was “a very proud
moment” for NASA. He emphasized
the dramatic changes brought about
by the program: “Americans and
the people of the world have made the
evolution to man in space—not just
astronauts.” The rollout of Enterprise
marked the beginning of a new era
in spaceflight, one in which all
could participate.
In fact, earlier that summer, the
agency had issued a call for a new
class of astronauts, the first to be
selected since the late 1960s when
nearly all astronauts were test pilots.
A few held advanced degrees in
science and medicine, but none were
women or minorities. Consequently,
NASA emphasized its determination
to select people from these groups
and encouraged women and
minorities to apply.
Approach and Landing Tests
In 1977, Enterprise flew the Approach
and Landing Tests at Dryden Flight
Research Center using Edwards Air
Force Base runways in California.
The program was a series of ground
and flight tests designed to learn
more about the landing characteristics
of the Orbiter and how the mated
shuttle and its carrier operated together.
First, crewless high-speed taxi tests
proved that the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft,
when mated to the Enterprise, could
steer and brake with the Orbiter
perched on top of the airframe. The
pair, then ready for flight, flew five
captive inert flights without astronauts
in February and March, which
qualified the 747 for ferry operations.
Captive-active flights followed in June
and July and featured two-man crews.
The final phase was a series of free
flights (when Enterprise separated
from the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and
landed at the hands of the two-man
crews) that flew in 1977, from
August to October, and proved the
flightworthiness of the shuttle and
the techniques of unpowered landings.
Most important, the Approach and
Landing Tests Program pointed out
sections of the Orbiter that needed to
be strengthened or made of different
materials to save weight.
The Historical Legacy
Page 17
James Carter
Approach and Landing Tests
Main Engine
External Tank
Solid Rocket Booster
First Launch Stack
NASA had planned to retrofit Enterprise
as a flight vehicle, but that would have
taken time and been costly. Instead, the
agency selected the other alternative,
which was to have the structural test
article rebuilt for flight. Eventually
called Challenger, this vehicle would
become the second Orbiter to fly in
space after Columbia. Though
Enterprise was no longer slated for
flight, NASA continued to use it for a
number of tests as the program matured.
Getting Ready to Fly
Concurrent with the Approach and
Landing Tests Program, the astronaut
selection board in Houston held
interviews with 208 applicants selected
from more than 8,000 hopefuls. In
1978, the agency announced the first
class of Space Shuttle astronauts.
This announcement was a historic one.
Six women who held PhDs or medical
degrees accepted positions along with
three African American men and a
Japanese American flight test engineer.
After completing 1 year of training,
the group began following the progress
of the shuttle’s subsystems, several of
which had caused the program’s first
launch to slip.
The Space Shuttle Main Engines
were behind schedule and threatened
to delay the first orbital flight, which
was tentatively scheduled for March
1979. Problems plagued the engines
from the beginning. As early as 1974,
the engines ran into trouble as cost
overruns threatened the program
and delays dogged the modification
of facilities in California and the
development of key engine
components. Test failures occurred at
Rocketdyne’s California facility and
the National Space Technology
Laboratory in Mississippi, further
delaying development and testing.
Another pacing item for the program
was the shuttle’s tiles. As Columbia
underwent final assembly in
California, Rockwell employees
began applying the tiles, with the
work to be completed in January 1979.
Their application was much more time
consuming than had been anticipated,
and NASA transferred the ship to
Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in
March, where the task would be
completed in the Orbiter Processing
Facility and later in the Vehicle
Assembly Building. Once in Florida,
mating of the tiles to the shuttle
ramped up. Unfortunately, engineers
found that many of the tiles had to
be strengthened. This resulted in many
of the 30,000 tiles being removed,
tested, and replaced at least once.
The bonding process was so time
consuming that technicians worked
First Department of Defense Flight
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Department of Defense
Classied Flight
Satellite Deploy,
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Observatory or Interplanetary
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around the clock, 7 days a week at
KSC to meet the launch deadline.
Aaron Cohen, former manager for
the Space Shuttle Orbiter Project and
JSC director, remembered the stress
and pressure caused by the delays in
schedule. “I really didn’t know how we
were going to solve the tile problem,”
he recalled. As the challenges mounted,
Cohen, who was under tremendous
pressure from NASA, began going
gray, a fact that his wife attributed to
“every tile it took to put on the vehicle.”
Eventually, engineers came up with a
solution—a process known as
densification, which strengthened the
tiles and, according to Cohen, “bailed
us out of a major, significant problem”
and remained the process throughout
the program.
After more than 10 years of design
and development, the shuttle appeared
ready to fly. In 1979 and 1980, the
Space Shuttle Main Engines proved
their flightworthiness by completing
a series of engine acceptance tests.
The tile installation finally ended, and
the STS-1 crew members, who had
been named in 1978, joked that they
were “130% trained and ready to go”
because of all the time they spent in
the shuttle simulators. Young and
Crippen’s mission marked the beginning
of the shuttle flight test program.
Enterprise atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft in a flight above the Mojave Desert, California (1977).
Spaceflight Operations
Columbia’s First Missions
Columbia flew three additional test
flights between 1981 and 1982.
These test flights were designed to
verify the shuttle in space, the testing
and processing facilities, the vehicle’s
equipment, and crew procedures.
Ground testing demonstrated the
capability of the Orbiter, as well as
of its components and systems.
Without flight time, information
about these systems was incomplete.
The four tests were necessary to help
NASA understand heating, loads,
acoustics, and other concepts that
could not be studied on the ground.
This test program ended on July 4,
1982, when commander Thomas
Mattingly landed the shuttle at Dryden
Flight Research Center (DFRC) on the
15,000-ft runway at Edwards Air Force
Base in California. Waiting at the foot
of the steps, President Reagan and
First Lady Nancy Reagan congratulated
the STS-4 crew on a job well done.
Speaking to a crowd of more than
45,000 people at DFRC, the president
said that the completion of this task was
“the historical equivalent to the driving
of the golden spike which completed the
first transcontinental railroad. It marks
our entrance into a new era.”
The operational flights, which followed
the flight test program, fell into several
categories: DoD missions; commercial
satellite deployments; space science
flights; notable spacewalks (also called
extravehicular activities); or satellite
repair and retrieval.
To improve costs, beginning in 1983
all launches and landings at KSC
were managed by one contractor,
Lockheed Space Operations
Company,Titusville, Florida. This
consolidated many functions for the
entire shuttle processing.
Department of Defense Flights
STS-4 (1982) featured the first classified
payload, which marked a fundamental
shift in NASA’s traditionally open
environment. Concerned with national
security, the DoD instructed NASA
Astronauts Mattingly and Henry
Hartsfield to not transmit images of
the cargo bay during the flight, lest
pictures of the secret payload might
inadvertently be revealed. STS-4 did
differ somewhat from the other future
DoD-dedicated flights: there was no
secure communication line, so the crew
worked out a system of communicating
with the ground.
“We had the checklist divided up in
sections that we just had letter names
like Bravo Charlie, Tab Charlie, Tab
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Bravo that they could call out. When we
talked to Sunnyvale [California] to Blue
Cube out there, military control, they
said, ‘Do Tab Charlie,’or something.
That way it was just unclassified,”
Hartsfield recalled. Completely
classified flights began in 1985.
Even though Vandenberg Air Force
Base had been selected as one of the
program launch sites in 1972, the
California shuttle facilities were not
complete when classified flights began.
Anticipating slips, the DoD and NASA
decided to implement a controlled mode
at JSC and KSC that would give the
space agency the capability to control
classified flights out of the Texas and
Florida facilities. Flight controllers at
KSC and JSC used secured launch and
flight control rooms separate from the
rooms used for non-DoD flights.
Modifications were also made to the
flight simulation facility, and a room
was added in the astronaut office, where
flight crew members could store
classified documents inside a safe and
talk on a secure line.
Although the facilities at Vandenberg
Air Force Base were nearly complete in
1984, NASA continued to launch and
control DoD flights. Two DoD missions
flew in 1985: STS-51C and STS-51J.
Each flight included a payload specialist
from the Air Force. That year, the
department also announced the names of
the crew of the first Vandenberg flight,
STS-62A, which would have been
commanded by veteran Astronaut
Robert Crippen, but was cancelled in the
wake of the Challenger accident (1986).
Flying classified flights complicated
the business of spaceflight. For
national security reasons, the Mission
Operations Control Room at JSC was
closed to visitors during simulations
and these flights. Launch time was
not shared with the press and, for the
first time in NASA’s history, no
astronaut interviews were granted
about the flight, no press kits were
distributed, and the media were
prohibited from listening to the
air-to-ground communications.
Shuttle Operations, 1982-1986
STS-5 (1982) marked both the
beginning of shuttle operations and
another turning point in the history
of the Space Shuttle Program. As
Astronaut Joseph Allen explained,
spaceflight changed “from testing the
means of getting into space to using the
resources found there.” Or, put another
way, this four-member crew (the
largest space crew up to that point;
the flight tests never carried more than
two men at a time) was the first to
launch two commercial satellites.
This “initiated a new era in which
the business of spaceflight became
business itself.” Dubbed the “Ace
Moving Company,” the crew jokingly
promised “fast and courteous service”
for its future launch services.
Many of the early shuttle flights were,
in fact, assigned numerous commercial
satellites, which they launched from the
Orbiter’s cargo bay. With NASA given
a monopoly in the domestic launch
market, many flight crews released at
least one satellite on each flight, with
several unloading as many as three
communication satellites for a number
of nations and companies. Foreign
clients, particularly attracted to NASA’s
bargain rates, booked launches early in
the program.
Another visible change that occurred
on this, the fifth flight of Columbia
was the addition of mission
specialists—scientists and engineers—
whose job it was to deploy satellites,
conduct spacewalks, repair and retrieve
malfunctioning satellites, and work
as scientific researchers in space.
The first two mission specialists—
Joseph Allen, a physicist, and William
Lenoir, an electrical engineer—held
PhDs in their respective fields and
had been selected as astronauts in 1967.
Those who followed in their footsteps
had similar qualifications, often
holding advanced degrees in their
fields of study.
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With the addition of mission specialists
and the beginning of operations, space
science became a major priority for
the shuttle, and crews turned their
attention to research. A variety of
experiments made their way on board
the shuttle in Get Away Specials, the
Shuttle Student Involvement Project,
the middeck (crew quarters), pallets
(unpressurized platforms designed to
support instruments that require direct
exposure to space), and Spacelabs.
Medical doctors within NASA’s own
Astronaut Corps studied space sickness
on STS-7 (1983) and STS-8 (1983),
subjecting their fellow crew members
to a variety of tests in the middeck to
determine the triggers for a problem
that plagues some space travelers.
Aside from medical experiments, many
of the early missions included a variety
of Earth observation instruments.
The crews spent time looking out the
window, identifying and photographing
weather patterns, among other
phenomena. A number of flights
featured material science research,
including STS-61C (1986), which
included Marshall Space Flight
Center’s Material Science Laboratory.
As space research expanded, so
did the number of users, and the
aerospace industry was not excluded
from this list. They were particularly
active in capitalizing on the potential
benefits offered by the shuttle and its
platform as a research facility. Having
signed a Joint Endeavor Agreement
(a quid pro quo arrangement, where
no money exchanged hands) with
NASA in 1980, McDonnell Douglas
Astronautics flew its Continuous Flow
Electrophoresis System on board the
shuttle numerous times to explore the
capabilities of materials processing
in space. The system investigated the
ability to purify erythropoietin (a
hormone) in orbit and to learn whether
the company could mass produce
the purified pharmaceutical in orbit.
The company even sent one of its
employees—who, coincidentally, was
the first industrial payload specialist—
into space to monitor the experiment
on board three flights, including the
maiden flight of Discovery. Other
companies, like Fairchild Industries
and 3M, also signed Joint Endeavor
Agreements with NASA.
When the ninth shuttle flight lifted off
the pad in November 1983, Columbia
had six passengers and a Spacelab in its
payload bay. This mission, the first flight
of European lab, operated 24 hours a
day, featured more than 70 experiments,
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Page 21
and carried the first noncommercial
payload specialists to fly in space.
Three additional missions flew
Spacelabs in 1985, with West Germany
sponsoring the flight of STS-61A,
the first mission financed and
operated by another nation. One of
the unique features of this flight
was how control was split between
centers. JSC’s Mission Control
managed the shuttle’s systems and
worked closely with the commander
and pilot while the German Space
Operations Center in Oberpfaffenhofen
oversaw the experiments and
scientists working in the lab.
By 1984, the shuttle’s capabilities
expanded dramatically when Astronauts
Bruce McCandless and Bob Stewart
tested the manned maneuvering units
that permitted flight crews to conduct
untethered spacewalks. At this point in
the program, this was by far the most
demanding spacewalk conducted by
astronauts. The first spacewalk,
conducted just months before the flight
of STS-41B, tested the suits and the
capability of astronauts to work in the
payload bay. As McCandless flew the
unit out of the cargo bay for the first
time, he said, “It may have been one
small step for Neil, but it’s a heck of a
big leap for me.” Set against the
darkness of space, McCandless became
the first human satellite in space.
Having proved the capabilities of the
manned maneuvering unit, NASA
exploited its capabilities and used the
device to make satellite retrieval and
repair possible without the use of the
Shuttle Robotic Arm.
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Christopher Kraft
Director of Johnson Space Center
during shuttle development and early
launches (1972-1982).
Played an instrumental role in the development
and establishment of mission control.
“We went through a lot to prove that we should launch STS-1 manned instead
of unmanned; it was the first time we ever tried to do anything like that.
We convinced ourselves that the reliability was higher and the risk lower,
even though we were risking the lives of two men. We convinced ourselves
that that was a better way to do it, because we didn’t know what else to do.
We had done everything we could think of.”
Early Satellite Repair and Retrievals
Between 1984 and 1985, the shuttle
flew three complicated satellite
retrieval or repair missions. On NASA’s
11th shuttle mission, STS-41C, the
crew was to capture and repair the
Solar Maximum Satellite (SolarMax),
the first one built to be serviced and
repaired by shuttle astronauts. Riding
the manned maneuvering unit,
spacewalker George Nelson tried to
capture the SolarMax, but neither he
nor the Robotic Arm operator Terry
Hart was able to do so. Running
low on fuel, the crew backed away
from the satellite while folks at the
Goddard Space Flight Center in
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The Historical Legacy
Maryland stabilized the SolarMax.
The shuttle had just enough fuel for
one more rendezvous with the satellite.
Fortunately, Hart was able to grapple
the satellite, allowing Nelson and
James van Hoften to fix the unit,
which was then rereleased into orbit.
The following retrieval mission was
even more complex. STS-51A was the
first mission to deploy two satellites and
then retrieve two others that failed to
achieve their desired orbits. Astronauts
Joseph Allen and Dale Gardner used the
manned maneuvering unit to capture
Palapa and Westar, originally deployed
on STS-41B 9 months earlier. They
encountered problems, however, when
stowing the first recovered satellite,
forcing Allen to hold the 907-kg
(2,000-pound) satellite over his head
for an entire rotation of the Earth—
90 minutes. When the crew members
reported that they had captured and
secured both satellites in Discovery’s
payload bay, Lloyd’s of London—
one of the underwriters for the
satellites—rang the Lutine bell, as they
had done since the 1800s, to announce
events of importance. As Cohen,
former director of JSC, explained,
“Historically Lloyd’s of London,
who would insure high risk adventures,
rang a bell whenever ships returned
to port with recovered treasure from
the sea.” He added that the salvage of
these satellites in 1984 “was at that
time the largest monetary treasure
recovered in history.”
The program developed a plan for the
crew of STS-51I (1985) to retrieve and
repair a malfunctioning Hughes satellite
that had failed to power up just months
before the flight. With only 4 months to
prepare, NASA built a number of tools
that had not been tested in space to
accomplish the crew’s goal. In many
ways, the crew’s flight was a first. Van
Hoften, one of the walkers on STS-41C,
recalled the difference between his
first and second spacewalk: “It wasn’t
anything like the first one. The first one
was so planned out and choreographed.
This one, we were winging it, really.”
Instead of planning their exact moves,
crew members focused instead on skills
and tasks. Their efforts paid off when
the ground activated the satellite.
William Lucas, PhD
Former director of
Marshall Space Flight Center
during shuttle operations
until Challenger accident
Played an instrumental
role in Space Shuttle Main
Engine, External Tank,
and Solid Rocket Booster
design, development,
and operations.
“The shuttle was an important part of the total space program and it
accomplished, in a remarkable way, the unique missions for which it was
designed. In addition, as an element of the continuum from the first ballistic
missile to the present, it has been a significant driver of technology for the
benefit of all mankind.”
On October 11, 1974, newly appointed Marshall Space
Flight Center (MSFC) Director Dr. William Lucas (right)
and a former MSFC Director Dr. Wernher von Braun
view a model.
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Space Station Reemerges
As the Space Shuttle Program matured,
NASA began working on the Space
Station Program, having been directed
to do so by President Reagan in his
1984 State of the Union address.
The shuttle would play an important
role in building the orbiting facility.
In the winter of 1985, STS-61B tested
structures and assembly methods for
the proposed long-duration workshop.
Spacewalkers built a 13.8-m (45-ft)
tower and a 3.7-m (12-ft) structure,
proving that crews could feasibly
assemble structures using parts carried
into space by the Orbiter. NASA
proceeded with plans to build Space
Station Freedom, which in the 1990s
was transformed to the International
Space Station (ISS).
To fund the space station, NASA
needed to cut costs for shuttles by
releasing requests for proposals for
three new contracts. In 1983, the
Shuttle Processing Contract integrated
all processing at KSC. Lockheed
Space Operations Company received
this contract. In 1985, the Space
Transportation Systems Operations
Contract and the Flight Equipment
Contract were solicited. The former
contract consolidated 22 shuttle
operations contracts, while the latter
combined 15 agreements involving
spaceflight equipment (e.g., food,
clothes, and cameras). NASA
Administrator James Beggs hoped that
by awarding such contracts, he could
reduce shuttle costs by as much as a
quarter by putting cost incentives into
the contracts. Rockwell International
won the Space Transportation Systems
Operations Contract, and NASA
chose Boeing Aerospace Operations
to manage the Flight Equipment
Processing Contract.
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Challenger Accident
In January 1986, NASA suspended all
shuttle flights after the Challenger
accident in which seven crew members
perished. A failure in the Solid Rocket
Booster motor joint caused the
vehicle to break up. The investigation
board was very critical of NASA
management, especially about the
decision to launch. For nearly 3 years,
NASA flew no shuttle flights. Instead,
the agency made changes to the
shuttle. It added a crew escape system
and new brakes, improved the main
engines, and redesigned the Solid
Rocket Boosters, among other things.
In the aftermath of the accident, the
agency made several key decisions,
which were major turning points.
The shuttle would no longer deliver
commercial satellites into Earth orbit
unless “compelling circumstances”
existed or the deployment required the
unique capabilities of the space truck.
This decision forced industry and
foreign governments who hoped to
deploy satellites from the shuttle to
turn to expendable launch vehicles.
Fletcher, who had returned for a
second term as NASA administrator,
cancelled the Shuttle/Centaur Program
because it was too risky to launch the
shuttle carrying a rocket with highly
combustible liquid fuel. Plans to
finally activate and use the Vandenberg
Air Force Base launch site were
abandoned, and the shuttle launch site
was eventually mothballed. The Air
Force decided to launch future
payloads on Titan rockets and ordered
additional expendable launch vehicles.
A few DoD-dedicated missions
would, however, fly after the accident.
Finally, in 1987, Congress authorized
the building of Endeavour as a
replacement for the lost Challenger.
Endeavour was delivered to KSC in
the spring of 1991.
Post-Challenger Accident
Return to Flight
STS-26 was the Space Shuttle’s Return
to Flight. Thirty-two months after the
Challenger accident, Discovery roared
to life on September 29,1988, taking
its all-veteran crew into space where
they deployed the second Tracking and
Data Relay Satellite. The crew safely
returned home to DFRC 4 days later,
and Vice President George H.W. Bush
and his wife Barbara Bush greeted the
crew. That mission was a particularly
significant accomplishment for NASA.
STS-26 restored confidence in the
agency and marked a new beginning
for NASA’s human spaceflight program.
Building Momentum
Following the STS-26 flight, the
shuttle’s launch schedule climbed once
again, with the space agency eventually
using all three shuttles in the launch
processing flow for upcoming missions.
The first four flights after the accident
alternated between Discovery and
Atlantis, adding Columbia to the mix for
STS-28 (1989). Even though the flight
crews did not launch any commercial
satellites from the payload bay, several
deep space probes—the Magellan Venus
Radar Mapper, Galileo, and Ulysses—
required the shuttle’s unique
capabilities. STS-30 (1989) launched the
mapper, which opened a new era
of exploration for the agency. This was
the first time a Space Shuttle crew
deployed an interplanetary probe,
thereby interlocking both the manned
and unmanned spaceflight programs.
In addition, this flight was NASA’s first
planetary mission of any kind since
1977, when it launched the Voyager
spacecraft. STS-34 (1989) deployed the
Galileo spacecraft toward Jupiter.
Finally, STS-41 (1990) delivered the
European Space Agency’s Ulysses
spacecraft, which would study the polar
regions of the sun.
Extended Duration Orbiter Program
Before 1988, shuttle flights were short,
with limited life science research.
NASA thought that if the shuttle could
be modified, it could function as a
microgravity laboratory for weeks at a
time. The first stage was to make
modifications to the life support, air,
water, and waste management systems
for up to a 16-day stay. There were
potential drawbacks to extended stays
in microgravity. Astronauts were
concerned about the preservation of
their capability for unaided egress from
the shuttle, including the capability
for bailout. Another concern was
degradation of landing proficiency
after such a long stay, as this had never
been done before.
Between 1992 (STS-50) and 1995,
this program successfully demonstrated
that astronauts could land and egress
after such long stays, but that significant
muscle degradation occurred. The
addition of a new pressurized g-suit
provided relief to the light-headedness
(feeling like fainting) experienced
when returning to Earth. Improvements
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included the addition of a crew transport
vehicle that astronauts entered directly
from the landed shuttle in which they
reclined during medical examination
until they were ready to walk. On-orbit
exercise was tested to improve their
physical capabilities for emergency
egress and landing. The research
showed that with more than 2 weeks of
microgravity, astronauts probably
should not land the shuttle as it was too
complicated and risky. In the future,
shuttle landing would only be performed
by a short-duration astronaut.
The Historical Legacy
Astronaut James Voss is pictured during an
STS-69 (1995) extravehicular activity that was
conducted in and around Endeavour’s cargo bay.
Voss and Astronaut Michael Gernhardt performed
evaluations for space station-era tools and
various elements of the spacesuits.
The Great Observatories
Months before the Ulysses deployment,
the crew of STS-31 (1990) deployed the
Hubble Space Telescope, which had
been slated for launch in August 1986
but slipped to 1990 after the Challenger
accident. Weeks before the launch,
astronauts and NASA administrators
laid out the importance of the flight.
Lennard Fisk, NASA’s associate
administrator for Space Science and
Applications, explained, “This is a
mission from which (people) can expect
very fundamental discoveries. They
could begin to understand creation.
Hubble could be a turning point in
humankind’s perception of itself and its
place in the universe.”
Unfortunately, within just a few short
months NASA discovered problems
with the telescope’s mirror—problems
that generated a great deal of
controversy. Several in Congress
believed that the telescope was a
colossal waste of money. Only 4 years
after the accident, NASA’s morale
plunged again. Fortunately, the flight
and ground crews, along with
employees at Lockheed Martin, took
the time to work out procedures to
service the telescope in orbit during the
flight hiatus. In 1992, NASA named the
crew that would take on this challenge.
The astronauts assigned to repair the
telescope felt pressure to succeed.
“Everybody was looking at the servicing
and repair of the Hubble Space
Telescope as the mission that could
prove NASA’s worth,” Commander
Dick Covey recalled. The mission
was one of the most sophisticated ever
planned at NASA. The spacewalkers
rendezvoused for the first time with the
telescope, one of the largest objects
the shuttle had rendezvoused with at
that point, and conducted a record-
breaking five spacewalks. The repairs
were successful, and the public faith
rebounded. Four additional missions
serviced the Hubble, with the final
launching in 2009.
Two other major scientific payloads,
part of NASA’s Great Observatories
including the Compton Gamma Ray
Observatory and the Chandra X-ray
Observatory, launched from the
Orbiter’s cargo bay. When the Compton
Gamma Ray Observatory’s high-gain
antenna failed to deploy, Astronauts
Jerry Ross and Jay Apt took the first
spacewalk in 6 years (the last walk
occurred in 1985) and freed the
antenna. The crew of STS-93, which
featured NASA’s first female mission
commander, Eileen Collins, delivered
the Chandra X-ray Observatory to
Earth orbit in 1999.
Satellite Retrieval and Repair
Satellite retrieval and repair missions all
but disappeared from the shuttle
manifest after the Challenger accident.
STS-49 (1992) was the one exception.
An Intelsat was stranded in an improper
orbit for several years, and spacewalkers
from STS-49 were to attach a new kick-
start motor to it.The plan seemed simple
enough. After all, NASA had plenty
of practice capturing ailing satellites.
After two unsuccessful attempts, flight
controllers developed a plan that
required a three-person spacewalk,
a first in the history of NASA’s space
operations. This finally allowed the
crew to repair and redeploy the satellite,
which occurred—coincidentally—
during Endeavour’s first flight.
New Main Engine
STS-70 flew in the summer of 1995
and launched a Tracking and Data
Relay Satellite. The shuttle flew the
new main engine, which contained an
improved high-pressure liquid oxygen
turbopump, a two-duct powerhead,
and a single-coil heat exchanger.
The new pumps were a breakthrough
in shuttle reliability and quality, for
they were much safer than those
previously used on the Orbiter. The
turbopumps required less maintenance
than those used prior to 1995. Rather
than removing each pump after every
flight, engineers would only have to
conduct detailed inspections of the
pumps after six missions. A single-coil
heat exchanger eliminated many of
the welds that existed in the previous
pump, thereby increasing engine
reliability, while the powerhead
enhanced the flow of fuel in the engine.
Space Laboratories
NASA continued to fly space laboratory
missions until 1998, when Columbia
launched the final laboratory and crew
into orbit for the STS-90 mission. The
shuttle had two versions of the payload
bay laboratory: European Spacelab
and US company Spacehab, Inc. Fifteen
years had passed since the flight of
STS-9—the first mission—and the
project ended with the launch of
Neurolab, which measured the impact
of microgravity on the nervous system:
blood pressure; eye-hand coordination;
motor coordination; sleep patterns; and
the inner ear. Scientists learned a great
deal from Spacelab Life Sciences-1 and
-2 missions, which flew in the summer
of 1991 and 1993, respectively, and
The Historical Legacy
Page 25
represented a turning point in spaceflight
human physiology research. Previous
understandings of how the human body
worked in space were either incomplete
or incorrect. The program scientist for
the flight explained that the crew
obtained “a significant number of
surprising results” from the flight.
Other notable flights included the
ASTRO-1 payload, which featured four
telescopes designed to measure
ultraviolet light from astronomical
objects, life sciences missions, the US
Microgravity Labs, and even a second
German flight called D-2. The day
before the crew of D-2 touched down
at DFRC on an Edwards Air Force
Base runway, the Space Shuttle
Program reached a major milestone,
having accrued a full year of flight
time by May 5,1993.
Spacehab, a commercially provided
series of modules similar to Spacelab
and used for science and logistics, was
a significant part of the shuttle
manifest in the 1990s. One of those
Spacehab flights featured the return of
Mercury 7 Astronaut and US Senator
John Glenn, Jr. Thirty-six years had
passed since he had flown in space and
had become the first American to fly
in Earth orbit. He broke records again
in 1998 when he became the oldest
person to fly in space. Given his age,
researchers hoped to compare the
similarities between aging on Earth
with the effects of microgravity on the
human body. Interest in this historic
flight, which also fell on NASA’s 40th
anniversary, was immense. Not only
was Glenn returning to orbit, but
Pedro Duque—a European Space
Agency astronaut—became the first
Spanish astronaut, following in the
footsteps of Spanish explorers Hernán
Cortés and Francisco Pizarro.
Consolidating Contracts
The Space Shuttle Program seemed
to hit its stride in the 1990s. In 1995,
NASA decided to consolidate 12
individual contracts under a single
prime contractor. United Space
Alliance (USA), a hybrid venture
between Rockwell International and
Lockheed Martin, became NASA’s
selection to manage the space agency’s
Space Flight Operations Contract.
USA was the obvious choice because
those two companies combined held
nearly 70% of the dollar value of prime
shuttle contracts. Although the idea
of handing over all processing and
launch operations to a contractor was
controversial, NASAAdministrator
Daniel Goldin, known for his “faster,
better, cheaper” mantra, enthusiastically
supported the sole source contract as
part of President William Clinton’s
effort to trim the federal budget and
increase efficiency within government.
NASA awarded USA a $7 billion
contract, which went into effect on
October 1,1996. Speaking at JSC about
the agreement, Goldin proclaimed,
“Today is the first day of a new space
program in America. We are opening
up the space program to commercial
space involving humans. May it
survive and get stronger.”
STS-80, the first mission controlled
by USA, launched in November 1996.
The all-veteran crew, on the final flight
of the year and the 80th of the program,
stayed in space for a record-breaking
17 days. A failure with the hatch
prohibited crew members from
conducting two scheduled spacewalks,
but NASA considered the mission a
success because the crew brought home
more scientific data than they had
expected to gather with the Orbiting and
Retrievable Far and Extreme Ultraviolet
Spectrometer-Shuttle Pallet Satellite-II.
Page 26
The Historical Legacy
US Senator John Glenn, Jr., payload specialist, keeps up his busy test agenda during Flight Day 7
on board Discovery STS-95 in 1998. This was a Spacehab flight that studied the effect of microgravity
on human physiology. He is preparing his food, and on the side is the bar code reader used to record
all food, fluids, and drug intakes.
The Shuttle-Mir Program
As the Cold War (the Soviet-US conflict
between the mid 1940s and early
1990s) ended, the George H.W. Bush
administration began laying the
groundwork for a partnership in space
between the United States and the
Soviet Union. Following the collapse
of the Soviet Union in 1991, President
Bush and Russian President Boris
Yeltsin signed a space agreement,
in June 1992, calling for collaboration
between the two countries in space.
They planned to place American
astronauts on board the Russian space
station Mir and to take Russian
cosmonauts on board shuttle flights.
Noting the historic nature of the
agreement, Goldin said, “Our children
and their children will look upon
yesterday and today as momentous
events that brought our peoples
together.” This agreement brokered a
new partnership between the world’s
spacefaring nations, once adversaries.
Known as the Shuttle-Mir Program,
these international flights were the
first phase of the ISS Program and
marked a turning point in history.
The Shuttle-Mir Program—led from
JSC, with its director George Abbey—
was a watershed and a symbol of the
thawing of relations between the United
States and Russia.
For more than 4 years, from the winter
of 1994 to the summer of 1998, nine
shuttle flights flew to the Russian space
station, with seven astronauts living on
board the Mir for extended periods of
time. The first phase began when
Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev flew on
board STS-60 (1994).
Twenty years had passed since the
Apollo-Soyuz Test Project when, in the
summer of 1995, Robert Gibson made
history when he docked Atlantis to the
much-larger Mir. The STS-71 crew
members exchanged gifts and shook
hands with the Mir commander in the
docking tunnel that linked the shuttle
and the Russian station. They dropped
off the next Mir crew and picked up two
cosmonauts and America’s first resident
of Mir, Astronaut Norman Thagard.
Additional missions ferried crews and
necessary supplies to Mir. One of the
major milestones of the program was the
STS-74 (1995) mission, which delivered
and attached a permanent docking port
to the Russian space station.
In 1996, Astronaut Shannon Lucid
broke all American records for time
in orbit and held the flight endurance
record for all women, from any nation,
when she stayed on board Mir for
188 days. Clinton presented Lucid
with the Congressional Space Medal
of Honor for her service, representing
the first time a woman or scientist
had received this accolade. Speaking
about the importance of the Shuttle-Mir
Program, the president said, “Her
mission did much to cement the
alliance in space we have formed with
Russia. It demonstrated that, as we
move into a truly global society, space
exploration can serve to deepen our
understanding, not only of our planet
and our universe, but of those who
share the Earth with us.”
STS-91 (1998), which ended shuttle
visits to Mir, featured the first flight of
the super-lightweight External Tank.
Made of aluminum lithium, the newly
designed tank weighed 3,402 kg
(7,500 pounds) less than the previous
tank (the lightweight or second-
generation tank) used on the previous
flight, but its metal was stronger
than that flown prior to the summer
of 1998. By removing so much launch
weight, engineers expanded the shuttle’s
ability to carry heavier payloads,
like the space station modules, into
Earth’s orbit. Launching with less
weight also enabled the crew to fly to
a high inclination orbit of 51.6 degrees,
where NASA and its partners would
build the ISS. STS-91 also carried a
prototype of the Alpha Magnetic
Spectrometer into space. This
instrument was designed to look for
dark and missing matter in the universe.
The preliminary test flight was in
preparation for its launch to the ISS
on STS-134. The Alpha Magnetic
Spectrometer has a state-of-the-art
particle physics detector, and includes
the participation of 56 institutions and
16 countries led by Nobel Laureate
Samuel Ting. By the end of the
Shuttle-Mir Program, the number of
US astronauts who visited the Russian
space station exceeded the number
of Russian cosmonauts who had
worked aboard Mir.
The International Space Station
With the first phase completed, NASA
began constructing the ISS with the
assistance of shuttle crews, who
played an integral role in building the
outpost. In 1998, 13 years after
spacewalker Jerry Ross demonstrated
the feasibility of assembling structures
in space (STS-61B [1985]), ISS
construction began. During three
spacewalks, Ross and James Newman
connected electrical power and cables
between the Russian Zarya module
and America’s Unity Module, also
called Node 1. They installed additional
hardware—handrails and antennas—
on the station. NASA’s dream of
building a space station had finally
come to fruition.
The Historical Legacy
Page 27
The shuttle’s 100th mission (STS-92)
launched from KSC in October 2000,
marking a major milestone for the
Space Shuttle and the International
Space Station Programs. The
construction crew delivered and
installed the initial truss—the first
permanent latticework structure—which
set the stage for the future addition of
trusses. The crew also delivered a
docking port and other hardware to
the station. Four spacewalkers spent
more than 27 hours outside the shuttle
as they reconfigured these new elements
onto the station. The seven-member
crew also prepared the station for the
first resident astronauts, who docked
with the station 14 days after the crew
left the orbital workshop. Of the
historic mission, Lead Flight Director
Chuck Shaw said, “STS-92/ISS
Mission 3A opens the next chapter
in the construction of the International
Space Station,” when human beings
from around the world would
permanently occupy the space base.
Crews began living and working in
the station in the fall of 2000, when the
first resident crew (Expedition 1) of
Sergei Krikalev, William Shepherd,
and Yuri Gidzenko resided in the space
station for 4 months. For the next
3 years, the shuttle and her crews were
the station’s workhorse. They
transferred crews; delivered supplies;
installed modules, trusses, the Space
Station Robotic Arm, an airlock, and
a mobile transporter, among other
things. By the end of 2002, NASA
had flown 16 assembly flights. Flying
the shuttle seemed fairly routine until
February 2003, when Columbia
disintegrated over East Texas, resulting
in the loss of the shuttle and her
seven-member crew.
Columbia Accident
The cause of the Columbia accident
was twofold. The physical cause
resulted from the loss of insulating
foam from the External Tank, which
hit the Orbiter’s left wing during launch
and created a hole. When Columbia
Page 28
entered the Earth’s atmosphere,
the left wing leading edge thermal
protection (reinforced carbon-carbon
panels) was unable to prevent
heating due to the breach. This led
to the loss of control and disintegration
of the shuttle, killing the crew.
NASA’s flawed culture of
complacency also bore responsibility
for the loss of the vehicle and its
astronauts. All flights were put on
hold for more than 2 years as NASA
implemented numerous safety
improvements, like redesigning the
External Tank with an improved
bipod fitting that minimized potential
foam debris from the tank. Other
improvements were the Solid Rocket
Booster Bolt Catcher, impact sensors
added to the wing’s leading edge, and a
boom for the shuttle’s arm that allowed
the crew to inspect the vehicle for any
possible damage, among other things.
As NASA worked on these issues,
President George W. Bush announced
his new Vision for Space Exploration,
which included the end of the Space
Shuttle Program. As soon as possible,
the shuttles would return to flight to
complete the ISS by 2010 and then
NASA would retire the fleet.
The Historical Legacy
Although no astronauts are visible in this picture, action was brisk outside the Space Shuttle (STS-116)/space station tandem in 2006.
Post-Columbia Accident
Return to Flight
In 2005, STS-114 returned NASA to
flying in space. Astronaut Eileen
Collins commanded the first of two
Return to Flight missions, which
were considered test flights. The first
mission tested and evaluated new
flight safety procedures as well as
inspection and repair techniques
for the vehicle. One of the changes
was the addition of an approximately
15-m (50-ft) boom to the end of the
robotic arm. This increased astronauts’
capabilities to inspect the tile located
The Historical Legacy
Page 29
on the underbelly of the shuttle.
When NASA discovered two gap
fillers sticking out of the tiles on the
shuttle’s belly on the first mission,
flight controllers and the astronauts
came up with a plan to remove
the gap fillers—an unprecedented and
unplanned spacewalk that they
believed would decrease excessive
temperatures on re-entry. The plan
required Astronaut Stephen Robinson
to ride the arm underneath the shuttle
and pull out the fillers. In 24 years
of shuttle operations, this had never
been attempted, but the fillers were
easily removed. STS-114 showed
that improvements in the External
Tank insulation foam were
insufficient to prevent dangerous
losses during ascent. Another year
passed before STS-121 (2006), the
second Return to Flight mission, flew
after more improvements were made
to the foam applications.
Leroy Chiao, PhD
Astronaut on STS-65 (1994),
STS-72 (1996), and STS-92 (2000).
Commander and science officer on
ISS Expedition 10 (2004-2005).
“To me, the Space Shuttle is an
amazing flying machine. It
launches vertically as a rocket,
turns into an extremely capable
orbital platform for many
purposes, and then becomes an
airplane after re-entry into the
atmosphere for landing on a conventional runway. Moreover, it is a reusable
vehicle, which was a first in the US space program.
“The Space Shuttle Program presented me the opportunity to become a NASA
astronaut and to fly in space. I never forgot my boyhood dream and years later
applied after watching the first launch of Columbia. In addition to being a superb
research and operations platform, the Space Shuttle also served as a bridge to
other nations. Never before had foreign nationals flown aboard US spacecraft.
On shuttle, the US had flown representatives from nations all around the world.
Space is an ideal neutral ground for cooperation and the development of better
understanding and relationships between nations.
“Without the Space Shuttle as an extravehicular activity test bed, we would
not have been nearly as successful as we have been so far in assembling
the ISS. The Space Shuttle again proved its flexibility and capability for ISS
construction missions.
“Upon our landing (STS-92), I realized that my shuttle days were behind me.
I was about to begin training for ISS. But on that afternoon, as we walked around
and under Discovery, I savored the moment and felt a mixture of awe, satisfaction,
and a little sadness. Shuttle, to me, represents a triumph and remains to this day
a technological marvel. We learned so much from the program, not only in the
advancement of science and international relations, but also from what works and
what doesn’t on a reusable vehicle. The lessons learned from shuttle will make
future US spacecraft more reliable, safer, and cost effective.
“I love the Space Shuttle. I am proud and honored to be a part of its history
and legacy.”
Final Flights
Educator Astronaut
Excitement began to build at NASA
and across the nation as the date
for Barbara Morgan’s flight, STS-118
(2007), grew closer. Morgan had
been selected as the backup for
Christa McAuliffe, NASA’s first
Teacher in Space in 1985. After the
Challenger accident, Morgan became
the Teacher in Space Designee
and returned to teaching in Idaho.
She came back to Houston in 1998
when she was selected as an astronaut
candidate. More than 20 years after
being selected as the backup Teacher
in Space, Morgan fulfilled that dream
by serving as the first educator mission
specialist. NASAAdministrator
Michael Griffin praised Morgan
“for her interest, her toughness, her
resiliency, her persistence in wanting
to fly in space and eventually doing
so.” Adults recalled the Challenger
accident and watched this flight with
interest. STS-118 drew attention from
students, from across America and
around the globe, who were curious
about the flight.
Return to Hubble
In May 2009, the crew of STS-125
made the final repairs and upgrades to
the Hubble Space Telescope to ensure
quality science for several more years.
This flight was a long time coming due
to the Columbia accident, after which
NASA was unsure whether it could
continue to fly to destinations with no
safe haven such as the ISS.
With the ISS, if problems arose,
especially with the thermal protection,
the astronauts could stay in the space
station until either another shuttle or
the Russian Soyuz could bring them
home. The Hubble orbited beyond the
ability for the shuttle to get to the ISS
if the shuttle was critically damaged.
Thus, for several years, the agency had
vetoed any possibility that NASA could
return to the telescope.
At that point, the Hubble had been
functioning for 12 years in the very
hostile environment of space. Not only
did its instruments eventually wear out,
but the telescope needed important
upgrades to expand its capabilities.
After the Return to Flight of STS-114
and STS-121, NASA reevaluated the
ability to safety return astronauts after
launch. The method to ensure safe
return in the event of shuttle damage
was to have a backup vehicle in place.
So in 2009, Atlantis launched to
repair the telescope, with Endeavour
as the backup.
Improvements on the International
Space Station Continued
Discovery flight STS-128, in 2009,
provided capability for six crew
members for ISS. This was a major
milestone for ISS as the station had
been operating with two to three crew
members since its first occupation
in 1999. The shuttle launched most of
the ISS, including Canadian, European,
and Japanese elements, to the orbiting
laboratory. In 2010, Endeavour provided
the final large components: European
Space Agency Node 3 with additional
hygiene compartment; and Cupola
with a robotic work station to assist
in assembly/maintenance of the ISS and
a window for Earth observations.
As of December 2010, NASA
manifested two more shuttle flights:
STS-133 and STS-134.
Page 30
The Historical Legacy
This Commemorative Patch celebrates the
30-year life and work of the Space Shuttle
Program. Selected from over 100 designs, this
winning patch by Mr. Blake Dumesnil features
the historic icon set within a jewel-shape frame.
It celebrates the shuttle’s exploration within
low-Earth orbit, and our desire to explore beyond.
Especially poignant are the seven stars on each
side of the shuttle, representing the 14 lives
lost—seven on Columbia, seven on Challenger—
in pursuit of their dream, and this nation’s dream
of further exploration and discovery. The five
larger stars represent the shuttles that made up
the fleet—each shuttle a star in its own right.
The Historical Legacy
Page 31
Changes in Mission Complexity Over Nearly 3 Decades
Length of flight as mission days. Early flights lasted less than 1
week, but, as confidence grew, some flights lasted 14 to 15 days.
Crew size started at two—a commander and pilot—and
grew to routine flights with six crew members. During the
Shuttle-Mir and International Space Station (ISS) Programs,
the shuttle took crew members to the station and returned
crew members, for a total of seven crew members.
Deploys occurred throughout the program. During the first
10 years, these were primarily satellites with sometimes more
than one per flight. Some satellites, such as Hubble Space
Telescope, were returned to the payload bay for repair. With
construction of the ISS, several major elements were deployed.
Components of Mission Complexity
Over the 30 years of the Space Shuttle Program, missions became more complex with increased understanding of the use of this vehicle,
thereby producing increased capabilities. This diagram illustrates the increasing complexity as well as the downtime between the major
accidents—Challenger and Columbia.
Rendezvous included every time the shuttle connected to an
orbiting craft from satellites, to Hubble, Mir, and ISS. Some flights
had several rendezvous.
Extravehicular activity (EVA) is determined as EVA crew days.
Many flights had no EVAs, while others had one every day with
two crew members.
Secret Department of Defense missions were very complex.
Spacelabs were missions with a scientific lab in the payload bay.
Besides the complexity of launch and landing, these flights
included many scientific studies.
Construction of the ISS by shuttle crew members.
Who heard the whispers that were coming from the shuttle’s Solid Rocket
Boosters (SRBs) on a cold January morning in 1986? Who thought the mighty
Space Shuttle, designed to withstand the thermal extremes of space, would be
negatively affected by launching at near-freezing temperatures? Very few
understood the danger, and most of the smart people working in the program
missed the obvious signs. Through 1985 and January 1986, the dedicated and
talented people at the NASA Human Spaceflight Centers focused on readying
the Challenger and her crew to fly a complex mission. Seventy-three seconds
after SRB ignition, hot gases leaking from a joint on one of the SRBs impinged
on the External Tank (ET), causing a structural failure that resulted in the loss
of the vehicle and crew.
Most Americans are unaware of the profound and devastating impact the
accident had on the close-knit NASA team. The loss of Challenger and
her crew devastated NASA, particularly at Johnson Space Center (JSC) and
Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) as well as the processing crews at
Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and the landing and recovery crew at Dryden
Flight Research Center. Three NASA teams were primarily responsible for
shuttle safety—JSC for on-orbit operation and crew member issues;
MSFC for launch propulsion; and KSC for shuttle processing and launch.
Each center played its part in the two failures. What happened to the
“Failure is not an option” creed, they asked. The engineering and operations
teams had spent months preparing for this mission. They identified many
failure scenarios and trained relentlessly to overcome them. The ascent flight
control team was experienced with outstanding leadership and had practiced
for every contingency. But on that cold morning in January, all they could
do was watch in disbelief as the vehicle and crew were lost high above the
Atlantic Ocean. Nothing could have saved the Challenger and her crew once
the chain of events started to unfold. On that day, everything fell to pieces.
Seventeen years later, in 2003, NASA lost a second shuttle and crew—Space
Transportation System (STS)-107. The events that led up to the loss of
Columbia were eerily similar to those surrounding Challenger. As with
Challenger, the vehicle talked to the program but no one understood. Loss of
foam from the ET had been a persistent problem in varying degrees for the
entire program. When it occurred on STS-107, many doubted that a
lightweight piece of foam could damage the resilient shuttle. It made no
sense, but that is what happened. Dedicated people missed the obvious. In
the end, foam damaged the wing to such an extent that the crew and vehicle
could not safely reenter the Earth’s atmosphere. Just as with Challenger,
there was no opportunity to heroically “save the day” as the data from the
vehicle disappeared and it became clear that friends and colleagues were
lost. Disbelief was the first reaction, and then a pall of grief and devastation
descended on the NASA family of operators, engineers, and managers.
Page 32
The Historical Legacy
The Accidents:
A Nation’s
Tragedy, NASA’s
Randy Stone
Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
The Crew
Michael Chandler
Philip Stepaniak
Witness Accounts—Key to
Understanding Columbia Breakup
Paul Hill
The Challenger Accident
Pressure to Fly
As the final flight of Challenger
approached, the Space Shuttle Program
and the operations community at JSC,
MSFC, and KSC faced many pressures
that made each sensitive to maintaining
a very ambitious launch schedule. By
1986, the schedule and changes in the
manifest due to commercial and
Department of Defense launch
requirements began to stress NASA’s
ability to plan, design, and execute
shuttle missions. NASA had won
support for the program in the 1970s by
emphasizing the cost-effectiveness and
economic value of the system. By
December 1983, 2 years after the
maiden flight of Columbia, NASA had
flown only nine missions. To make
spaceflight more routine and therefore
more economical, the agency had to
accelerate the number of missions it
flew each year. To reach this goal,
NASA announced an ambitious rate of
24 flights by1990.
NASA flew five missions in 1984 and a
record nine missions the following year.
By 1985, strains in the system were
evident. Planning, training, launching,
and flying nine flights stressed the
agency’s resources and workforce, as
did the constant change in the flight
manifest. Crews scheduled to fly in 1986
would have seen a dramatic decrease
in their number of training hours or the
agency would have had to slow down
its pace because NASA simply lacked
the staff and facilities to safely fly an
accelerated number of missions.
By the end of 1985, pressure mounted
on the space agency as they prepared to
launch more than one flight a month the
next year. A record four launch scrubs
and two launch delays of STS-61C,
which finally launched in January 1986,
exacerbated tensions. To ensure that
no more delays would threaten the
1986 flight rate or schedule, NASA cut
the flight 1 day short to make sure
Columbia could be processed in time
for the scheduled ASTRO-1 science
mission in March. Weather conditions
prohibited landing that day and the
next, causing a slip in the processing
schedule. NASA had to avoid any
additional delays to meet its goal of
15 flights that year.
The agency needed to hold to the
schedule to complete at least three
flights that could not be delayed.
Two flights had to be launched in
May 1986: the Ulysses and the Galileo
flights, which were to launch within
6 days of each other. If the back-to-back
flights missed their launch window,
the payloads could not be launched
until July 1987. The delay of STS-61C
and Challenger’s final liftoff in January
threatened the scheduled launch plans
of these two flights in particular. The
Challenger needed to launch and deploy
a second Tracking and Data Relay
Satellite, which provided continuous
global coverage of Earth-orbiting
satellites at various altitudes. The shuttle
would then return promptly to be
reconfigured to hold the liquid-fueled
Centaur rocket in its payload bay.
The ASTRO-1 flight had to be launched
in March or April to observe Halley’s
Comet from the shuttle.
On January 28, 1986, NASA launched
Challenger, but the mission was
never realized. Hot gases from the
right-hand Solid Rocket Booster motor
had penetrated the thermal barrier
and blown by the O-ring seals on the
booster field joint. The joints were
designed to join the motor segments
together and contain the immense heat
and pressure of the motor combustion.
As the Challenger ascended, the leak
became an intense jet of flame that
penetrated the ET, resulting in
structural failure of the vehicle and
loss of the crew.
Prior to this tragic flight, there had
been many O-ring problems witnessed
as early as November 1981 on the
second flight of Columbia. The hot
gases had significantly eroded the
STS-2 booster right field joint—deeper
than on any other mission until the
accident—but knowledge was not
widespread in mission management.
STS-6 (1983) boosters did not have
erosion of the O-rings, but heat had
impacted them. In addition, holes were
blown through the putty in both nozzle
joints. NASA reclassified the new
field joints Criticality 1, noting that the
failure of a joint could result in “loss of
life or vehicle if the component fails.”
Even with this new categorization,
the topic of O-ring erosion was not
discussed in any Flight Readiness
Reviews until March 1984, in
preparation for the 11th flight of the
program. Time and again these
anomalies popped up in other missions
flown in 1984 and 1985, with the
issue eventually classified as an
“acceptable risk” but not desirable.
The SRB project manager regularly
waived these anomalies, citing them as
“repeats of conditions that had already
been accepted for flight” or “within
their experience base,” explained
Arnold Aldrich, program manager for
the Space Shuttle Program.
Senior leadership like Judson
Lovingood believed that engineers
“had thoroughly worked that joint
problem.” As explained by former
Chief Engineer Keith Coates, “We
knew the gap was opening. We knew
The Historical Legacy
Page 33
the O-rings were getting burned.
But there’d been some engineering
rationale that said, ‘It won’t be a
failure of the joint.’And I thought
justifiably so at the time I was there.
And I think that if it hadn’t been for
the cold weather, which was a whole
new environment, then it probably
would have continued. We didn’t like
it, but it wouldn’t fail.”
Each time the shuttle launched
successfully, the accomplishment
masked the recurring field joint
problems. Engineers and managers
were fooled into complacency because
they were told it was not a flight safety
issue. They concluded that it was safe
to fly again because the previous
missions had flown successfully. In
short, they reached the same conclusion
each time—it was safe to fly another
mission. “The argument that the same
risk was flown before without failure is
often accepted as an argument for the
safety of accepting it again. Because of
this, obvious weaknesses are accepted
again and again, sometimes without a
sufficiently serious attempt to remedy
them or to delay a flight because of
their continued presence,” wrote
Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner
and member of the presidential-
appointed Rogers Commission charged
to investigate the Challenger accident.
Operational Syndrome
The Space Shuttle Program was also
“caught up in a syndrome that the
shuttle was operational,” according to
J.R.Thompson, former project manager
for the Space Shuttle Main Engines.
The Orbital Flight Test Program, which
ended in 1982, marked the beginning of
routine operations of the shuttle, even
though there were still problems with
the booster joint. Nonetheless, MSFC
and Morton Thiokol, the company
responsible for the SRBs, seemed
confident with the design.
Although the design of the boosters
had proven to be a major complication
for MSFC and Morton Thiokol, the
engineering debate occurring behind
closed doors was not visible to the entire
Space Shuttle Program preparing for the
launch of STS-51L. There had been
serious erosions of the booster joint
seals on STS-51B (1985) and STS-51C
(1985), but MSFC had not pointed out
any problems with the boosters right
before the Challenger launch.
Furthermore, MSFC failed to bring
the design issue, failures, or concern
with launching in cold temperatures to
the attention of senior management.
Instead, discussions of the booster
engines were resolved at the local level,
even on the eve of the Challenger
launch. “I was totally unaware that these
meetings and discussions had even
occurred until they were brought to light
several weeks following the Challenger
accident in a Rogers Commission
hearing at KSC,”Arnold Aldrich
recalled. He also recalled that he had
sat shoulder to shoulder with senior
management “in the firing room for
approximately 5 hours leading up to the
launch of Challenger and no aspect of
these deliberations was ever discussed
or mentioned.”
Even the flight control team “didn’t
know about what was lurking on the
booster side,” according to Ascent
Flight Director Jay Greene. Astronaut
Richard Covey, then working as capsule
communicator, explained that the team
“just flat didn’t have that insight” into
the booster trouble. Launch proceeded
and, in fewer than 2 minutes, the joint
failed, resulting in the loss of seven
lives and the Challenger.
Looking back over the decision, it is
difficult to understand why NASA
launched the Challenger that morning.
The history of troublesome technical
issues with the O-rings and joint are
easily documented. In hindsight, the
trends appear obvious, but the data had
not been compiled. Wiley Bunn noted,
“It was a matter of assembling that data
and looking at it [in] the proper fashion.
Had we done that, the data just jumps
off the page at you.”
The accident devastated NASA
employees and contractors. To this
day Aldrich asks himself regularly,
“What could we have done to prevent
what happened?” Holding a mission
management team meeting the morning
of launch might have brought up the
Thiokol/MSFC teleconference the
previous evening. “I wish I had made
such a meeting happen,” he lamented.
The flight control team felt some
responsibility for the accident,
remembered STS-51L Lead Flight
Director Randy Stone. Controllers
“truly believed they could handle
absolutely any problem that this vehicle
could throw at us.” The accident,
however, “completely shattered the
belief that the flight control team can
always save the day. We have never
fully recovered from that.” Alabama
and Florida employees similarly
felt guilty about the loss of the crew
and shuttle, viewing it as a personal
failure. John Conway of KSC pointed
out that “a lot of the fun went out of
the business with that accident.”
Over time, the wounds began to heal
and morale improved as employees
reevaluated the engineering design and
process decisions of the program. The
KSC personnel dedicated themselves to
the recovery of Challenger and returning
as much of the vehicle back to the
launch site as possible. NASA spent the
next 2½ years fixing the hardware and
improving processes, and made over
200 changes to the shuttle during this
downtime. Working on design changes
to improve the vehicle contributed to the
healing process for people at the centers.
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The Historical Legacy
Making the boosters and main engines
more robust became extremely
important for engineers at MSFC and
Thiokol. The engineers and astronauts
at JSC threw themselves into
developing an escape system and
protective launch and re-entry suits
and improving the flight preparation
process. All of the improvements
then had to be incorporated into the
KSC vehicle processing efforts.
All NASA centers concentrated on how
they could make the system better and
safer. For civil servants and contractors,
the recovery from the accident was not
just business. It was personal. Working
toward Return to Flight was almost a
religious experience that restored the
shattered confidence of the workforce.
NASA instituted a robust flight
preparation process for the Return to
Flight mission, which focused on safety
and included a series of revised
procedures and processes at the centers.
At KSC, for instance, new policies
were instituted for 24-hour operations
to avoid the fatigue and excessive
overtime noted by the Rogers
Commission. NASA implemented the
NASA Safety Reporting System. Safety,
reliability, maintainability, and quality
assurance staff increased considerably.
The Historical Legacy
Page 35
The Crew
Following the breakup of Challenger
(STS-51L) during launch over the Atlantic
Ocean on January 28, 1986, personnel
in the Department of Defense STS
Contingency Support Office activated the
rescue and recovery assets. This included
the local military search and rescue
helicopters from the Eastern Space and
Missile Center at Patrick Air Force Base and
the US Coast Guard. The crew compartment
was eventually located on March 8, and
NASA officially announced that the recovery
operations were completed on April 21.
The recovered remains of the crew were
taken to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
and then transported, with military honors,
to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology
where they were identified. Burial
arrangements were coordinated with the
families by the Port Mortuary at Dover
Air Force Base, Delaware. Internal NASA
reports on the mechanism of injuries
sustained by the crew contributed to
upgrades in training and crew equipment
that supported scenarios of bailout,
egress, and escape for Return to Flight.
Following the breakup of Columbia
(STS-107) during re-entry over Texas and
Louisiana on February 1, 2003, personnel
from the NASA Mishap Investigation Team
were dispatched to various disaster field
offices for crew recovery efforts.The Lufkin,
Texas, office served as the primary area
for all operations, including staging assets
and deploying field teams for search,
recovery, and security. Many organizations
had operational experience with disaster
recovery, including branches of the federal,
state, and local governments together with
many local citizen volunteers. Remains of
all seven crew members were found within
a 40- by 3-km (25- by 2-mile) corridor in
East Texas.The formal search for crew
members was terminated on February 13,
2003.Astronauts, military, and local police
personnel transported the crew, with honors,
to Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, for
preliminary identification and preparation
for transport.The crew was then relocated,
with military honor guard and protocol,
to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology
medical examiner for forensic analysis.
Burial preparation and arrangements were
coordinated with the families by the Port
Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
Additional details on the mechanism of
injuries sustained by the crew and lessons
learned for enhanced crew survival are
found in the Columbia Crew Survival
Investigation Report NASA/SP-2008-565.
Reconstruction of the Columbia from parts found in East Texas. From this layout, NASA was
able to determine that a large hole occurred in the leading edge of the wing and identify the
burn patterns that eventually led to the destruction of the shuttle.
JSC’s Mission Operations Director
Eugene Kranz noted that Mission
Operations examined “every job we
do” during the stand down. They
microscopically analyzed their
processes and scrutinized those
decisions. They learned that the flight
readiness process prior to the
Challenger accident frequently lacked
detailed documentation and was often
driven more by personality than by
requirements. The process was never
identical or exact but unique. Changes
were made to institute a more rigorous
program, which was well-documented
and could be instituted for every flight.
Astronaut Robert Crippen became the
deputy director of the National Space
Transportation System Operations.
He helped to determine and establish
new processes for running and
operating the flight readiness review
and mission management team (headed
by Crippen), as well as the launch
commit criteria procedures, including
temperature standards. He instituted
changes to ensure the agency
maintained clear lines of responsibility
and authority for the new launch
decision process he oversaw.
Retired Astronaut Richard Truly also
participated in the decision-making
processes for the Return to Flight effort.
Truly, then working as associate
administrator for spaceflight, invited the
STS-26 (1988) commander Frederick
Hauck to attend any management
meetings in relation to the preparation
for flight. By attending those meetings,
Hauck had “confidence in the fixes
that had been made” and “confidence in
the team of people that had made those
decisions,” he remarked.
Return to Flight
After Challenger Accident
As the launch date for the flight
approached, excitement began to build
at the centers. Crowds surrounded
the shuttle when it emerged from the
Vehicle Assembly Building on
July 4, 1988. The Star-Spangled Banner
played as the vehicle crawled to the
pad, while crew members and other
workers from KSC and Headquarters
spoke about the milestone. David
Hilmers, a member of the crew, tied the
milestone to the patriotism of the day.
“What more fitting present could we
make to our country on the day of its
birth than this? America, the dream
is still alive,” he exclaimed. The Return
to Flight effort was a symbol of
America’s pride and served as a healing
moment not only for the agency but
also for the country. Tip Talone of
KSC likened the event to a “rebirth.”
Indeed, President Ronald Reagan, who
visited JSC in September 1988, told
workers, “When we launch Discovery,
even more than the thrust of great
engines, it will be the courage of our
heroes and the hopes and dreams of
every American that will lift the shuttle
into the heavens.”
Without any delays, the launch
of STS-26 went off just a few days
after the president’s speech, returning
Americans to space. The pride in
America’s accomplishment could be
seen across the country. In Florida,
the Launch Control Center raised
a large American flag at launch time
and lowered it when the mission
concluded. In California, at Dryden
Flight Research Center, the astronauts
exited the vehicle carrying an
American flag—a patriotic symbol
of their flight. Cheering crowds
waving American flags greeted the
astronauts at the crew return event at
Ellington Field in Houston, Texas.
The launch restored confidence
in the program and the vehicle. Pride
and excitement could be found across
the centers and at contract facilities
around the country.
The Columbia Accident
NASA flew 87 successful missions
following the Return to Flight effort.
As the 1990s unfolded, the post-
Challenger political and economic
environment changed dramatically.
Environment Changes
As the Soviet Union disintegrated
and the Soviet-US conflict that began
in the mid 1940s came to an end,
NASA (established in 1958) struggled
to find its place in a post-Cold War
world. Around the same time, the
federal deficit swelled to a height that
raised concern among economists and
citizens. To cut the deficit, Congress
and the White House decreased
domestic spending, and NASA was not
spared from these cuts. Rather than
eliminate programs within the agency,
NASA chose to become more
cost-effective. A leaner, more efficient
agency emerged with the appointment
of NASAAdministrator Daniel Goldin
in 1992, whose slogan was “faster,
better, cheaper.”
The shuttle, the most expensive line
item in NASA’s budget, underwent
significant budget reductions throughout
the 1990s. Between 1993 and 2003, the
program suffered from a 40% decrease
in its purchasing capability (with
inflation included in the figures), and its
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The Historical Legacy
The Historical Legacy
Page 37
workforce correspondingly decreased.
To secure additional cost savings,
NASA awarded the Space Flight
Operations Contract to United Space
Alliance in 1995 to consolidate
numerous shuttle contracts into one.
Pressure Leading up to the Accident
As these changes took effect, NASA
began working on Phase One of the
Space Station Program, called
Shuttle-Mir. Phase Two, assembly of
the ISS, began in 1998. The shuttle was
critical to the building of the outpost
and was the only vehicle that could
launch the modules built by Europe,
Japan, and the United States. By tying
the two programs so closely together,
a reliable, regular launch schedule was
necessary to maintain crew rotations,
so the ISS management began to dictate
NASA’s launch schedule. The program
had to meet deadlines outlined in
bilateral agreements signed in 1998.
Even though the shuttle was not an
operational vehicle, the agency worked
its schedules as if the space truck could
be launched on demand, and there
was increasing pressure to meet a
February 2004 launch date for Node 2.
When launch dates slipped, these
delays affected flight schedules.
On top of budget constraints, personnel
reductions, and schedule pressure, the
program suffered from a lack of vision
on replacing the shuttle. There was
uncertainty about the program’s lifetime.
Would the shuttle fly until 2030 or be
replaced with new technology? Ronald
Dittemore, manager of the Space Shuttle
Program from 1999 to 2003, explained,
“We had no direction.” NASA would
“start and stop” funding initiatives, like
the shuttle upgrades, and then reverse
directions. “Our reputation was kind of
sullied there, because we never finished
what we started out to do.”
This was the environment in which
NASA found itself in 2003. On the
morning of January 16, Columbia
launched from KSC for a lengthy
research flight. On February 1, just
minutes from a successful landing in
Florida, the Orbiter broke up over
East Texas and Louisiana. Debris
littered its final path. The crew and
Columbia were lost.
Recovering Columbia and Her Crew
Recovery of the Orbiter and its crew
began at 9:16 a.m., when the ship
failed to arrive in Florida. The rapid
response and mishap investigation
teams from within the agency headed
to Barksdale Air Force Base in
Shreveport, Louisiana. Hundreds of
NASA employees and contractors
reported to their centers to determine
how they could help bring the crew
and Columbia home. Local emergency
service personnel were the first
responders at the various scenes.
By that evening, representatives from
local, state, and federal agencies were
in place and ready to assist NASA.
The recovery effort was unique, quite
unlike emergency responses following
other national disasters. David Whittle,
head of the mishap investigation team,
recalled that there were “130 state,
federal, and local agencies” represented
in the effort; but as he explained, we
“never, ever had a tiff. Matter of fact,
the Congressional Committee on
Homeland Security sent some people
down to interview us to figure out how
we did that, because that was not the
experience of 9/11.” The priority of the
effort was the recovery of the vehicle
and the astronauts, and all of these
agencies came together to see to it that
NASA achieved this goal.
While in East Texas and Louisiana, the
space agency came to understand how
important the Space Shuttle Program
was to the area and America. Volunteers
traveled from all over the United States
to help in the search. People living in the
area opened their arms to the thousands
of NASA employees who were grieving.
They offered their condolences, while
some local restaurants provided free
food to workers. Ed Mango, KSC
launch manager and director of the
recovery for approximately 3 months,
learned “that people love the space
program and want to support it in any
way they can.” His replacement, Jeff
Angermeier, added, “When you work in
the program all the time, you care
deeply about it, but it isn’t glamorous to
you. Out away from the space centers,
NASA is a big deal.”
As volunteers collected debris, it
was shipped to KSC where the vehicle
was reconstructed. For the center’s
employees, the fact that Columbia
would not be coming back whole was
hard to swallow. “I never thought I’d
see Columbia going home in a box,”
said Michael Leinbach of KSC. Many
others felt the same way. Working with
the debris and reconstructing the ship
did help, however, to heal the wounds.
As with the loss of Challenger, NASA
employees continue to be haunted by
questions of “what if.” “I’ll bet you a
day hardly goes by that we don’t think
about the crew of Columbia and if there
was something we might have been able
to do to prevent” the accident, admitted
Dittemore. Wayne Hale, shuttle program
manager for launch integration at KSC,
called the decisions made by the mission
management team his“biggest” regret.
“We had the opportunity to really save
the day, we really did, and we just didn’t
do it, just were blind to it.”
Foam had detached from the ET since
the beginning of the program, even
though design requirements specifically
prohibited shedding from the tank.
Columbia sustained major damage on
its maiden flight, eventually requiring
the replacement of 300 tiles. As early
as 1983, six other missions witnessed
the left tank bipod ramp foam loss that
eventually led to the loss of the STS-107
crew and vehicle. For more than 20
years, NASA had witnessed foam
shedding and debris hits. Just one flight
after STS-26 (the Return to Flight after
Challenger), Atlantis was severely
damaged by debris that resulted in the
loss of one tile.
Two flights prior to the loss of Columbia
and her crew, STS-112 (2002)
experienced bipod ramp loss, which hit
both the booster and tank attachment
ring. The result was a 10.2-cm- (4-in.)-
wide, 7.6-cm- (3 in.)-deep tear in the
insulation. The program assigned the ET
Project with the task of determining the
cause and a solution. But the project
failed to understand the severity of foam
loss and its impact on the Orbiter, so the
due date for the assignment slipped to
after the return of STS-107.
Foam loss became an expected anomaly
and was not viewed as risky. Instead,
the issue became one the program had
regularly experienced, and one that
engineers believed they understood.
It was never seen as a safety issue.
The fact that previous missions, which
had experienced severe debris hits, had
successfully landed only served to
reinforce confidence within the program
concerning the robustness of the vehicle.
After several months of investigation
and speculation about the cause of the
accident, investigators determined that
a breach in the tile on the left wing led
to the loss of the vehicle. Insulation
foam from the ET’s left bipod ramp,
which damaged the wing’s reinforced
carbon-carbon panel, created the gap.
During re-entry, superheated air entered
the breach. Temperatures were so
extreme that the aluminum in the left
wing began to melt, which eventually
destroyed it and led to a loss of vehicle
control. Columbia experienced
aerodynamic stress that the damaged
airframe could not withstand, and
the vehicle eventually broke up over
East Texas and Louisiana.
Senior program management had been
alerted to the STS-107 debris strike on
the second day of the flight but had
failed to understand the risks to the crew
or the vehicle. No one thought that foam
could create a hole in the leading edge
of the wing. Strikes had been within
their experience base. In short,
management made assumptions based
on previous successes, which blinded
them to serious problems. “Even in
flight when we saw (the foam) hit the
wing, it was a failure of imagination
that it could cause the damage that it
undoubtedly caused,” said John
Shannon, who later became manager of
the Space Shuttle Program. Testing later
proved that foam could create cracks in
the reinforced carbon-carbon and holes
of 40.6 by 43.2 cm (16 by 17 in.).
Aside from the physical cause of the
accident, flaws within the decision-
making process also significantly
impacted the outcome of the STS-107
flight. A lack of effective and clear
communication stemmed from
organizational barriers and hierarchies
within the program. These obstacles
made it difficult for engineers with
real concerns about vehicle damage to
share their views with management.
Investigators found that management
accepted opinions that mirrored their
own and rejected dissent.
The second Return to Flight effort
focused on reducing the risk of failures
documented by the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board. The focus was on
improving risk assessments, making
system improvements, and
implementing cultural changes in
workforce interaction. In the case of
improved risk assessments, Hale
explained, “We [had] reestablished the
old NASA culture of doing it right,
relying more on test and less on talk,
requiring exacting analysis, doing our
homework.” As an example, he cited
the ET-120, which was to have been the
Return to Flight tank for STS-114 and
was to be sent to KSC late in 2004.
But, he admitted, “We knew there
[were] insufficient data to determine the
tank was safe to fly.” After the Debris
Verification Review, management
learned that some minor issues still had
to be handled before these tanks would
be approved for flight.
During the flight hiatus, NASA
upgraded many of the shuttle’s systems
and began the process of changing its
culture. Engineers redesigned the
boosters’ bolt catcher and modified the
tank in an attempt to eliminate foam
loss from the bipod ramp. Engineers
developed an Orbiter Boom Sensor
System to inspect the tiles in space,
and NASA added a Wing Leading
Edge Impact Detection System. NASA
also installed a camera on the ET
umbilical well to document separation
and any foam loss.
Finally, NASA focused on improving
communication and listening to
dissenting opinions. To help the agency
implement plans to open dialogue
between managers and engineers, from
the bottom up, NASA hired the global
safety consulting firm Behavioral
Science Technology, headquartered in
Ojai, California.
Return to Flight
After Columbia Accident
When the crew of STS-114 finally
launched in the summer of 2005, it was
a proud moment for the agency and the
country. President George W. Bush,
who watched the launch from the Oval
Office’s dining room, said, “Our space
program is a source of great national
pride, and this flight is an essential step
toward our goal of continuing to lead
the world in space science, human
spaceflight, and space exploration.”
First Lady Laura Bush and Florida
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The Historical Legacy
The Historical Legacy
Page 39
Governor Jeb Bush were among the
guests at KSC. Indeed, the Return
to Flight mission had been a source
of pride for the nation since its
announcement. For instance, troops in
Iraq sent a “Go Discovery” banner that
was hung at KSC. At the landing at
Dryden Flight Research Center, the
astronauts exited the vehicle carrying an
American flag. When the crew returned
to Ellington Field, a huge crowd greeted
the crew, waving flags as a symbol of
the nation’s accomplishment. Houston
Mayor Bill White declared August 10,
2005, “Discovery STS-114 Day.”
Standing on a stage, backed by a giant
American flag, the crew thanked
everyone for their support.
Witness Accounts—Key to Understanding Columbia Breakup
The early sightings assessment team—
formed 2 days after the Space Shuttle
Columbia accident on February 1,2003—
had two primary goals:
Sift through and characterize the witness
reports during re-entry.
Obtain and analyze all available data to
better characterize the pre-breakup debris
and ground impact areas.This included
providing the NASA interface to the
Department of Defense (DoD) through the
DoD Columbia Investigation Support Team.
Of the 17,400 public phone, e-mail, and
mail reports received from February 1
through April 4, more than 2,900 were
witness reports during re-entry, prior
to the vehicle breakup. Over 700 of those
included photographs or video. Public
imagery provided a near-complete
record of Columbia’s re-entry and video
showed debris being shed from the
shuttle. Final analysis revealed 20 distinct
debris shedding events and three
flashes/flares during re-entry. Analysis of
these videos and corresponding air traffic
control radar produced 20 pre-breakup
search areas, ranging in size from 2.6 to
4,403 square km (1 to 1,700 square miles)
extending from the California-Nevada
border through West Texas.
To facilitate the trajectory analysis, witness
reports were prioritized to process re-entry
imagery with precise observer location and
time calibration first.The process was to
time-synchronize all video, determine the
exact debris shedding time, measure relative
motion, determine ballistic properties of the
debris, and perform trajectory analysis to
predict the potential ground impact areas
or footprints. Key videos were hand carried,
expedited through the photo assessment
team, and put into ballistic and trajectory
analysis as quickly as possible.The
Aerospace Corporation independently
performed the ballistic and trajectory
analysis for process verification.
The public reports, which at first seemed
like random information, were in fact
a diamond in the rough. This information
became invaluable for the search teams
on the ground. The associated trajectory
analyses also significantly advanced
the study of spacecraft breakup in the
atmosphere and the subsequent ground
impact footprints.
Debris 1
Debris 2
13:55:23 to 13:55:27
Debris Shower A
Debris 8
Debris 6
Flash 1
Debris 3
Debris 4
Debris 5
Debris 7
Debris 10
Debris 11
Debris 12
Debris 11A
Debris 11B
Debris 11C
Debris 13
Debris 14
Debris 15
Debris 16
Debris A
Debris B
Debris C
Debris D
Debris E
Debris F
Debris Shower
Late Flash 1
Late Flash 2
Flare 2
Flare 1
Debris 7A
Hours: Minutes: Seconds
STS-107 Global Positioning Satellite Trajectory
STS-107 Predicted Trajectory
Debris Event
Video Observer
Major City
00:00:00 =
El Paso
San Antonio
Worth Dallas
o t
After the Columbia broke apart over East
Texas, volunteers from federal agencies,
as well as members of the East Texas First
Responders, participated in walking the
debris fields, forest, and wetlands to find
as many parts as possible. This facilitated
in determining the cause of the accident.
Impact of the Accidents
The two shuttle tragedies shook NASA’s
confidence and have significantly
impacted the agency in the long term.
At the time of both accidents, the Space
Shuttle Program office, astronauts, and
flight and launch control teams were
incredibly capable and dedicated to
flying safely. Yet, from the vantage
point of hindsight, these teams
overlooked the obvious, allowing two
tragedies to unfold on the public stage.
Many of the people directly involved
in those flights remain haunted by the
realization that their decisions resulted
in the loss of human lives. NASA was
responsible for the safety of the crew
and vehicles, and they failed. The
flight control teams who worked
toward perfection with the motto of
“Failure is not an option” felt
responsible and hesitant to make hard
decisions. Likewise, the engineering
communities at JSC and MSFC, and
the KSC team that prepared the
vehicles, shared feelings of guilt and
shaken confidence.
The fact that these tragedies occurred
in front of millions of spectators and
elected officials made the aftermath
even more difficult for the NASA team.
The American public and the elected
officials expected perfection. When it
was not delivered, the outcry of “How
could this have happened?” made the
headlines of every newspaper and
television newscast and became a topic
of concern in Congress. The second
accident was harder on the agency
because the question was now: “How
could this have happened again?”
Because of the accidents, the agency
had a more difficult challenge in
convincing Congress of NASA’s
ability to safely fly people in space.
That credibility gap made each NASA
administrator’s job more difficult and
raised doubts in Congress about
whether human spaceflight was worth
the risk and money. To this day, doubts
have not been fully erased on the value
of human spaceflight, and the questions
of safety and cost are at the forefront of
every yearly budget cycle.
In contrast with American politicians,
the team of astronauts, engineers, and
support personnel that makes human
spaceflight happen believes that space
exploration must continue. “Yes, there
is risk in space travel, but I think that
it’s safe enough that I’m willing to take
the risk,” STS-114 (2005) Commander
Eileen Collins admitted before her final
flight. “I think it’s much, much safer
than what our ancestors did in traveling
across the Atlantic Ocean in an old
ship. Frankly, I think they were crazy
doing that, but they wanted to do that,
and we need to carry on the human
exploration of the universe that we live
in. I’m honored to be part of that and
I’m proud to be part of it. I want to be
able to hand on that belief or
enthusiasm that I have to the younger
generation because I want us to
continue to explore.”
Without this core belief, the individuals
who picked up the pieces after both
accidents could not have made it
through those terrible times. All of the
human spaceflight centers—KSC,
MSFC, and JSC—suffered terribly from
the loss of Challenger and Columbia.
The personnel of all three centers
recovered by rededicating themselves
to understanding what caused the
accidents and how accidents could be
prevented in the future. Together, they
found the problems and fixed them.
Did the agency change following
these two accidents? The answer is
absolutely. Following the Challenger
accident, the teams looked at every
aspect of the processes used to prepare
for a shuttle mission. As a result, they
went from the mentality that every
flight was completely new with a
custom solution to a mindset that
included a documented production
process that was repeatable, flight
after flight. The flight readiness
process evolved from a process of
informally asking each element if all
was flight ready to a well-documented
set of processes that required
specific questions be answered and
documented for presentation to
management at a formal face-to-face
meeting. A rigorous process emerged
across the engineering and the
operations elements at the centers
that made subsequent flights safer.
Yet in spite of all the formal processes
put in place, Columbia was still lost.
These procedures were not flawed,
but the decision-making process was
flawed with regard to assessing the
loss of foam. Tommy Holloway, who
served for several years as the Space
Shuttle Program manager, observed
that the decision to fly had been based
on previous success and not on the
analysis of the data.
Since 2003, NASA has gone to great
lengths to improve the processes to
determine risk and how the team
handles difficult decisions. A major
criticism of NASA following the
Columbia accident was that managers
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The Historical Legacy
did not always listen to minority and
dissenting positions. NASA has since
diligently worked toward transforming
the culture of its employees to be
inclusive of all opinions while working
toward a solution.
In hindsight, NASA should not have
made an “OK to fly” decision for the
final missions of Challenger and
Columbia. NASA depended on the
requirements that went into the Launch
Commit Criteria and Flight Rules to
assure that the shuttle was safe to fly.
Since neither flight had a “violation”
of these requirements, the missions
were allowed to proceed even though
some people were uncomfortable
with the conditions. As a result, NASA
has emphasized that the culture should
be “prove it is safe” as opposed to
“prove it is unsafe” when a concern is
raised. The process is better, and the
culture is changing as a result of both
of these accidents.
As a tribute to the human spirit, teams
did not quit or give up after either
accident but rather pressed on to Return
to Flight each time with a better-
prepared and more robust vehicle and
team. Some individuals never fully
recovered, and they drifted away from
human spaceflight. The majority,
however, stayed with a renewed vigor
to find ways to make spaceflight safer.
They still believe in the creed “Failure
is not an option” and work diligently to
meet the expectation of perfection by
the American people and Congress.
NASA has learned from past mistakes
and continues on with ventures in
space exploration, recognizing that
spaceflight is hard, complex, and—
most importantly—will always have
inherent risk. Accidents will happen,
and the teams will have to dig deep into
their inner strength to find a way to
recover, improve the system, and
continue the exploration of space for
future generations.
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On an Occasion
of National Mourning
Howard Nemerov
Poet Laureate of the United States
1963-1964 and 1988-1990
It is admittedly difficult for a whole
Nation to mourn and be seen to do so, but
It can be done, the silvery platitudes
Were waiting in their silos for just such
An emergent occasion, cards of sympathy
From heads of state were long ago prepared
For launching and are bounced around the world
From satellites at near the speed of light,
The divine services are telecast
From the home towns, children are interviewed
And say politely, gravely, how sorry they are,
And in a week or so the thing is done,
The sea gives up its bits and pieces and
The investigating board pinpoints the cause
By inspecting bits and pieces, nothing of the sort
Can ever happen again, the prescribed course
Of tragedy is run through omen to amen
As in a play, the nation rises again
Reborn of grief and ready to seek the stars;
Remembering the shuttle, forgetting the loom.
© Howard Nemerov. Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Al rights reserved.
To fully understand the story of the development of the Space Shuttle,
it is important to consider the national defense context in which it was
conceived, developed, and initially deployed.
The Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics (USSR), which had played such a large role in the
initiation of the Apollo Program, was also an important factor in the
decisions that formed and guided the Space Shuttle Program. The United
States feared that losing the Cold War (1947-1991) to the USSR could
result in Soviet mastery over the globe. Since there were few direct
conflicts between the United States and the USSR, success in space was
an indicator of which country was ahead—which side was winning.
Having lost the tactical battles of first satellite and first human in orbit,
the United States had recovered and spectacularly won the race to the
moon. To counter the successful US man-on-the-moon effort, the USSR
developed an impressive space station program. By the early 1980s, the
USSR had launched a series of space stations into Earth orbit. The
Soviets were in space to stay, and the United States could not be viewed
as having abdicated leadership in space after the Apollo Program.
The need to clearly demonstrate the continued US leadership in space
was an important factor in the formation of the Space Shuttle Program.
While several other programs were considered, NASA ultimately
directed their planning efforts to focus on a reusable, crewed booster
that would provide frequent, low-cost access to low-Earth orbit.
This booster would launch all US spacecraft, so there would have to be
direct interaction between the open, civilian NASA culture and the
Defense-related National Security Space (NSS) programs. Use of the
civilian NASA Space Shuttle Program by the NSS programs was
controversial, with divergent goals, and many thought it was a
relationship made for political reasons only—not in the interest of
national security. The relationship between these two very different
cultures was often turbulent and each side had to change to
accommodate the other. Yet it was ultimately successful, as seen in
the flawless missions that followed.
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The Historical Legacy
Jeff DeTroye
James Armor
Sebastian Coglitore
James Grogan
Michael Hamel
David Hess
Gary Payton
Katherine Roberts
Everett Dolman
National Security
Space Programs
The Department of Defense uses space
systems in support of air, land, and
sea forces to deter and defend against
hostile actions directed at the interests
of the United States. The Intelligence
community uses space systems to collect
intelligence. These programs, as a group,
are referred to as National Security
Space (NSS). Despite having a single
name, the NSS did not have a unified
management structure with authority
over all programs.
Since the beginning of the space era,
these defense-related space missions had
been giving the president, as well as
defense and intelligence leadership in
the United States, critical insights into
the actions and intents of adversaries.
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson said,
“I wouldn’t want to be quoted on this—
we’ve spent $35 or $40 billion on the
space program. And if nothing else had
come out of it except the knowledge that
we gained from space photography, it
would be worth 10 times what the whole
program has cost. Because tonight we
know how many missiles the enemy has
and, it turned out, our guesses were way
off. We were doing things we didn’t
need to do. We were building things we
didn’t need to build. We were harboring
fears we didn’t need to harbor.” Due to
these important contributions and others,
the NSS programs had a significant
amount of political support and funding.
As a result, both the NSS program
leadership and the NASA program
leadership often held conflicting views
of which program was more important
and, therefore, whose position on a
given issue ought to prevail.
These two characteristics of the NSS
programs—lack of unified NSS
program management and a competing
view of priorities—would cause
friction between NASA and the NSS
programs management throughout the
duration of the relationship.
1970-1981: Role
of National Security
Space Programs
in Development of
the Shuttle
The National Security Space (NSS)
is often portrayed as having forced
design requirements on NASA to
gain NSS commitment to the Space
Shuttle Program. In reality, NASA was
interested in building the most capable
(and largest) shuttle that Congress
and the administration would approve.
It is true that NSS leaders argued for a
large payload bay and a delta wing to
provide a 1,600-km (1,000-mile) cross
range for landing. NASA, however,
also wanted a large payload bay for
space station modules as well as for
spacecraft and high-energy stage
combinations. NASA designers
required the shuttle to be able to land
at an abort site, one orbit after launch
from the West Coast, which would
also require a delta wing. Indeed,
NASA cited the delta wing as an
essential NASA requirement, even
for launches from the East Coast.
NASA was offered the chance to build
a smaller shuttle when, in January
1972, President Richard Nixon
approved the Space Transportation
System (STS) for development.
The NASA leadership decided to stick
with the larger, delta wing design.
National Space Policy: The
Shuttle as Sole Access to Space
The Space Shuttle Program was
approved with the widely understood
but unstated policy that when it
became operational it would be used
to launch all NSS payloads. The
production of all other expendable
launch vehicles, like the reliable
Titan, would be abandoned. In 1981,
shortly after the launch of STS-1, the
National Space Transportation Policy
signed by President Ronald Reagan
formalized this position: “The STS
will be the primary space launch
system for both United States military
and civil government missions.
The transition to the shuttle should
occur as expeditiously as practical. . . .
Launch priority will be provided to
national security missions, and such
missions may use the shuttle as
dedicated mission vehicles.”
This mandated dependence on the
shuttle worried NSS leaders, with
some saying the plan was “seriously
deficient, both operationally and
economically.” In January 1984,
Secretary of Defense Caspar
Weinberger directed the purchase
of additional expendable boosters
because “total reliance upon the
STS for sole access to space in view
of the technical and operational
uncertainties, represents an
unacceptable national security risk.”
This action, taken 2 years before
the Challenger accident, ensured that
expendable launch vehicles would be
available for use by the NSS programs
in the event of a shuttle accident.
Furthermore, by 1982 the full costs
of shuttle missions were becoming
clearer and the actual per-flight cost
of a shuttle mission had risen to
over $280 million, with a Titan
launch looking cheap in comparison
at less than $180 million. With the
skyrocketing costs of a shuttle launch,
the existence of an expendable
launch vehicles option for the NSS
programs made the transition from the
shuttle inevitable.
Military “Man in Space”
To this day, the US Air Force (USAF)
uses flight crews for most of their
airborne missions. Yet, there was
much discussion within the service
about the value of having a military
human in space program. Through
the 1960s, development of early
reconnaissance satellites like Corona
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demonstrated that long-life
electronics and complex systems
on the spacecraft and on the ground
could be relied on to accomplish
the crucial task of reconnaissance.
These systems used inexpensive
systems on orbit and relatively
small expendable launch vehicles,
and they proved that human
presence in space was not necessary
for these missions.
During the early 1960s, NSS had
two military man in space programs:
first the “Dyna Soar” space plane, and
then the Manned Orbiting Laboratory
program. Both were cancelled, largely
due to skepticism on the part of the
Department of Defense (DoD) or
NSS leadership that the programs’
contributions were worth the expense
as well as the unwanted attention that
the presence of astronauts would bring
to these highly classified missions.
Although 14 military astronauts
were chosen for the Manned Orbiting
Laboratory program, the sudden
cancellation of this vast program in
1969 left them, as well as the nearly
completed launch facility at
Vandenberg Air Force Base, California,
without a mission. With NASA’s
existing programs ramping down,
NASA was reluctant to take the
military astronauts into its Astronaut
Corps. Eventually, only the seven
youngest military astronauts
transferred to NASA. The others
returned to their military careers.
These military astronauts did not fly
until the 1980s, with the first being
Robert Crippen as pilot on STS-1.
The Manned Orbiting Laboratory
pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base
would lie dormant until the early
1980s when modifications were begun
for use with the shuttle.
The Space Shuttle Program plans
included a payload specialist selected
for a particular mission by the payload
sponsor or customer. Many NSS
leadership were not enthusiastic
about the concept; however, in 1979,
a selection board made up of NSS
leadership and a NASA representative
chose the first cadre of 13 military
officers from the USAF and US Navy.
These officers were called manned
spaceflight engineers. There was
considerable friction with the NASA
astronaut office over the military
payload specialist program. Many of
the ex-Manned Orbiting Laboratory
astronauts who had been working at
NASA and waiting for over a decade
to fly in space were not enthusiastic
about the NSS plans to fly their own
officers as payload specialists. In the
long run, NASA astronauts had little
to be concerned about. When asked
his opinion of the role of military
payload specialists in upcoming
shuttle missions, General Lew Allen,
then chief of staff of the USAF,
related a story about when he played
a major role in the cancellation of
the Manned Orbiting Laboratory
Military Man in Space program.
In 1984, another NSS senior wrote:
“The major driver in the higher STS
costs is the cost of carrying man on a
mission which does not need man. . . .
It is clear that man is not needed on
the transport mission. . . .” The NSS
senior leadership was still very
skeptical about the need for a military
man in space. Ultimately, only two
NSS manned spaceflight engineers
flew on shuttle missions.
Launch System Integration:
Preparing for Launch
The new partnership between NASA
and the NSS programs was very
complex. Launching the national
security payloads on the shuttle
required the cooperation of two large,
proud organizations, each of which
viewed their mission as being
of the highest national priority. This
belief in their own primacy was a part
of each organization’s culture. From
the very beginning, it was obvious
that considerable effort would be
required by both organizations to forge
a true partnership. At the beginning
of the Space Shuttle Program, NASA
focused on the shuttle, while NSS
program leaders naturally focused on
the spacecraft’s mission. As the
partnership developed, NASA had
to become more payload focused.
Much of the friction was over who
was in charge. The NSS programs
were used to having control of the
launch of their spacecraft. NASA kept
firm control of the shuttle missions
and struggled with the requests for
unique support from each of the many
programs using the shuttle.
Launch system integration—the
process of launching a spacecraft on
the shuttle—was a complex activity
that had to be navigated successfully.
For an existing spacecraft design,
transitioning to fly on the shuttle
required a detailed engineering and
safety assessment. Typically, some
redesign was required to make the
spacecraft meet the shuttle’s
operational and safety requirements,
such as making dangerous propellant
and explosive systems safe for a
crewed vehicle. This effort actually
offered an opportunity for growth
due to the shuttle payload bay size
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The Historical Legacy
and the lift capacity from the Kennedy
Space Center (KSC) launch site.
Typically flying alone on dedicated
missions, the NSS spacecraft had all
the shuttle capacity to grow into.
Since design changes were usually
required for structural or safety
reasons, most NSS program managers
could not resist taking at least some
advantage of the available mass or
volume. So many NSS spacecraft
developed during the shuttle era were
much larger than their predecessors
had been in the late 1960s.
National Security Space
Contributions to the
Space Shuttle Program
The NSS programs agreed to provide
some of the key capabilities that the
Space Shuttle Program would need to
achieve all of its goals. As the executive
agent for DoD space, the USAF funded
and managed these programs.
One of these programs, eventually
known as the Inertial Upper Stage,
focused on an upper stage that would
take a spacecraft from the shuttle in
low-Earth orbit to its final mission orbit
or onto an escape trajectory for an
interplanetary mission. Another was a
West Coast launch site for the shuttle,
Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
Launching from this site would allow
the shuttle to reach high inclination
orbits over the Earth’s poles. Although
almost complete, it was closed after the
Challenger accident in 1986 and much
of the equipment was disassembled and
shipped to KSC to improve or expand
its facilities. Another program was a
USAF shuttle flight operation center in
Colorado. This was intended to be the
mission control center for NSS shuttle
flights, easing the workload on the
control center in Houston, Texas, for
these classified missions. USAF built
the facility and their personnel trained
at Johnson Space Center; however,
when the decision was made to
remove NSS missions from the shuttle
manifest after the Challenger accident,
the facility was not needed for shuttle
flights and eventually it was used for
other purposes.
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Space Shuttle Enterprise on Space Launch Complex 6 during pad checkout tests at Vandenberg
Air Force Base in 1985. Enterprise was the Orbiter built for the Approach and Landing Tests to prove
flightworthiness. It never became part of the shuttle fleet.
Flying National Security Space
Payloads on the Shuttle
The NSS program leadership matured
during a period when spacecraft and
their ground systems were fairly simple
and orbital operations were not very
complex. In the early 1980s, one
senior NSS program director was often
heard to say, “All operations needs is
a roll of quarters and a phone booth.”
This was hyperbole, but the point was
clear: planning and preparing for orbital
operations was not a priority. It wasn’t
unheard of for an NSS program with
budget, schedule, or political pressures
to launch a new spacecraft before all
the details for how to operate the
spacecraft on orbit had been completely
worked out.
Early on, NASA flight operations
personnel were stunned to see that the
ground systems involved in operating
the most critical NSS spacecraft were
at least a decade behind equivalent
NASA systems. Some even voiced
concern that, because the NSS systems
were so antiquated, they weren’t sure
the NSS spacecraft could be operated
safely with the shuttle. In NASA,
flight operations was a major
organizational focus and had been
since the days of Project Mercury.
NASA flight operations leaders such
as John O’Neil, Jay Honeycutt, Cliff
Charlesworth, and Gene Kranz had an
important voice in how the Space
Shuttle Program allocated its resources
and in its development plans. Line
managers in NASA, including Jay
Greene, Ed Fendell, and Hal Beck,
worked closely with the NSS flight
operations people to merge NSS
spacecraft and shuttle operations
into one seamless activity. Many of
the NASA personnel, especially flight
directors, had no counterpart on the
NSS government team.
To prepare for a mission, NASA flight
operations employed a very thorough
process that focused on ensuring that
flight controllers were ready for
anything the mission might throw at
them. This included practice sessions in
the control centers using spacecraft
simulators that were better than
anything the NSS personnel had seen.
NSS flight operations personnel
thought they had died and gone to
heaven. Here, finally, was an
organization that took “ops” seriously
and committed the resources to do it
right. As the partnership developed,
NASA forced, cajoled, and convinced
the NSS programs to adopt a more
thorough approach to the shuttle
integration and operations readiness
processes. Over time, NASA’s approach
caught on within the NSS. It was
simply a best practice worth emulating.
Another component of NASA human
spaceflight—the role of the
astronaut—was initially very foreign
to NSS personnel. Astronauts tended to
place a very personal stamp on the
plans for “their” mission, which came
as a shock to NSS program personnel.
Some NSS personnel chafed at the
effort required to satisfy the crew
member working with their payload.
On early missions, the commander
or other senior crew members would
not start working with the payload
until the last 6 months or so prior to
launch and would want to make
changes in the plans. This caused some
friction. The NSS people did not want
to deal with last-minute changes so
close to launch. After a few missions,
as the relationship developed,
adjustments were made by both sides
to ease this “last-minute effect.”
1982-1992: National
Security Space
and NASA Complete
11 Missions
The first National Security Space (NSS)
payload was launched on Space
Transportation System (STS)-4 in June
1982. This attached payload (one that
never left the payload bay), called
“82-1,” carried the US Air Force
(USAF) Space Test Program Cryogenic
Infrared Radiance Instrumentation for
Shuttle (CIRRIS) telescope and several
other small experiments. This mission
was originally scheduled for the 18th
shuttle flight; but, as the Space Shuttle
Program slipped, NSS program
management was able to maintain its
schedule and was ready for integration
into the shuttle early in 1982. Since the
first two shuttle missions had gone so
well, NASA decided to allow the 82-1
payload to fly on this flight test mission
despite the conflicts this decision would
cause with the mission’s test goals.
This rather selfless act on the part of
NASA was characteristic of the positive
relationship between NASA and the
NSS programs once the shuttle began
to fly. For the NSS programs, a major
purpose of this mission was to be a
pathfinder for subsequent NSS missions.
This payload was controlled from the
Sunnyvale USAF station in California.
This was also the only NSS mission
where the NSS flight controllers talked
directly to the shuttle crew.
Operational Missions
The next NSS mission, STS-51C,
occurred January 1985, 2½ years after
STS-4. STS-51C was a classified NSS
mission that included the successful
use of the Inertial Upper Stage. The
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The Historical Legacy
Inertial Upper Stage had experienced
a failure during the launch of the first
NASATracking and Data Relay
Satellite mission on STS-6 in 1983.
The subsequent failure investigation and
redesign had resulted in a long delay in
Inertial Upper Stage missions. With the
problem solved, the shuttle launched
into a 28.5-degree orbit with an altitude
of about 407 km (220 nautical miles).
The first manned spaceflight engineer,
Gary Payton, flew as a payload
specialist on this 3-day mission. This
was also the first use of the “Department
of Defense (DoD) Control Mode”—a
specially configured Mission Operations
Control Room at Johnson Space Center
that was designed and equipped with all
the systems required to protect the
classified nature of these missions.
The second and final manned
spaceflight engineer, William Pailes,
flew on the 4-day flight of STS-51J
in October 1985. This shuttle mission
deployed a defense communications
satellite riding on an Inertial Upper
Stage, which took the satellite up to
geosynchronous orbit.
The Challenger and her crew were
lost in a tragic accident the following
January. After launching only three
spacecraft payloads on the first 25
missions, the NSS response to the
Challenger accident was to move all
spacecraft that it could off shuttle
flights. The next NSS spacecraft flew
almost 2 years after the Challenger
accident on the 4-day mission of
STS-27 in December 1988. This
mission was launched into a 57-degree
orbit and had an all-NASA crew, as did
the subsequent NSS spacecraft payload
missions with only one exception
(STS-44 [1991]). No other details on
the STS-27 mission have been released.
The launch rate picked up 8 months
later with the launch of STS-28 in
August and STS-33 in November
(both in 1989), followed by STS-36
in February and STS-38 in November
(both in 1990). The details of these
missions remain classified, but the
rapid launch rate—four missions in
15 months—was working off the
backlog that had built up during the
delays after the Challenger accident.
This pace also demonstrated the
growing maturity of the NSS/NASA
working relationship.
In April 1991, in a departure from the
NSS unified approach to classification
of its activities on the shuttle, the USAF
Space Test Program AFP-675 with the
CIRRIS telescope was launched on
STS-39. This was the first time in the
NSS/NASA relationship that the details
of a dedicated DoD payload were
released to the world prior to launch.
The focus of this mission was Strategic
Defense Initiative research into sensor
designs and environmental phenomena.
The details of this flight and STS-44 in
November 1991 were released to the
public. Their payloads were from
previously publicized USAF programs.
STS-44 crew members included an
Army payload specialist, Tom Hennan.
This mission marked the end of flights
on the shuttle for non-NASA military
payload specialists. Ironically, Warrant
Officer Hennan performed experiments
called “Military Man in Space.” The
spacecraft launched on this mission was
the USAF Defense Support Program
satellite designed to detect nuclear
detonations, missile launches, and
space launches from geosynchronous
orbit. This satellite program had been
in existence for over 20 years. The
satellite launched on STS-44 replaced
an older satellite in the operational
Defense Support Program constellation.
Space Test Program
Another series of experiments, called
“M88-1,” on STS-44 was announced
as an ongoing series of tri-service
experiments designed to assess man’s
visual and communication capabilities
from space. The objectives of M88-1
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overlapped those done by Hennan
with his experiments; however, NASA
Mission Specialist Mario Runco and
the rest of the NASA crew performed
the M88-1 experiments. This activity
used a digital camera to produce
images that could be evaluated on
orbit. Observations were to be radioed
to tactical field users seconds after
the observation pass was complete.
Emphasis was on coordinating
observations with ongoing DoD
exercises to fully assess the military
benefits of a spaceborne observer.
The policy implications of using NASA
astronauts to provide input directly to
military forces on the ground during
shuttle missions have long been
debated. This flight and the following
mission (STS-53) are the only
acknowledged examples of this policy.
A year later in December 1992,
STS-53 was launched with a classified
payload called “DoD-1” on a 7-day
mission. Marty Faga, assistant secretary
of the USAF (space), said: “STS-53
marks a milestone in our long and
productive partnership with NASA.
We have enjoyed outstanding support
from the Space Shuttle Program.
Although this is the last dedicated
shuttle payload, we look forward to
continued involvement with the program
with DoD secondary payloads.”
With the landing of STS-53 at
Kennedy Space Center, the NSS/NASA
partnership came to an end. During
the 10 years of shuttle missions,
11 of the 52 missions were dedicated
to NSS programs. The end of
NSS-dedicated shuttle missions
resulted from the rising costs of shuttle
missions and policy decisions made
as a result of the Challenger accident.
There were few NSS-dedicated
missions relative to the enthusiastic
plans laid in the late 1970s; however,
the Space Shuttle Program had a
lasting impact on the NSS programs.
While the number of NSS-dedicated
missions was small, the partnership
between the NSS programs and NASA
had a lasting impact.
Gary Payton, US Air Force (USAF) Lieutenant
General (retired), flew on STS-51C (1985) as a
payload specialist. He was part of the USAF
manned spaceflight engineering program and
served as USAF Deputy Under Secretary for
Special Programs.
Defense Support Program spacecraft and attached
Inertial Upper Stage prior to release from Atlantis
on STS-44 (1991). This spacecraft provides warning
of ballistic missile attacks on the United States.
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The Historical Legacy
Michael Griffin, PhD
Deputy for technology at the Strategic
Defense Initiative Organization
NASA administrator (2005-2009).
Strategic Defense
Initiative Test
“STS-39 was a very complex
mission that led to breakthroughs
in America’s understanding
of the characteristics of missile
signatures in space. The data
we gathered enhanced our ability
to identify and protect ourselves
from future missile threats.
This is one of the most under-
recognized achievements of the
shuttle era.”
STS-39’s Air Force Program-675
equipment mounted on the
experiment support system pallet
in Discovery’s payload bay.
View of the Aurora Australis—or Southern
Lights—taken by Air Force Program-675
Uniformly Redundant Array and Cryogenic
Infrared Radiance Instrumentation during
STS-39 (1991). One of the equipment’s
objectives was to gather data on the Earth’s
aurora, limb, and airglow.
Legacy of the Space
Shuttle Program
and National
Security Space
The greatest legacy of the
NASA/National Security Space
(NSS) partnership was at the personal
level for NSS engineers and managers.
Working on the Space Shuttle
Program in the early 1980s was
exciting and provided just the sort
of motivation that could fuel a career.
NSS personnel learned new and
different operational and engineering
techniques through direct contact
with their NASA counterparts. As a
result, engineering and operations
practices developed by NASA were
applied to the future complex NSS
programs with great success.
Another significant legacy is that
of leadership in the NSS programs.
The manned spaceflight engineer
program in particular was adept at
selecting young officers with potential
to be future leaders of the NSS
programs. A few examples of current
or recent NSS leaders who spent
their formative years in the manned
spaceflight engineer program include:
Gary Payton, Mike Hamel, Jim Armor,
Kathy Roberts, and Larry James.
Others, such as Willie Shelton, were
US Air Force (USAF) flight controllers
assigned to work in Houston, Texas.
Many military personnel working
with NASA returned to the NSS space
programs, providing outstanding
leadership to future programs. Several
ex-astronauts, such as Bob Stuart, John
Fabian, and Kevin Chilton, have held
or are now holding senior leadership
roles in their respective services.
The role that the NASA/NSS
collaboration played in the formation
of Space Command also left a legacy.
While the formation of the USAF
Space Command occurred late in the
NASA/NSS relationship, close contact
between the NSS programs and the
shuttle organizations motivated the
Department of Defense to create an
organization that would have the
organizational clout and budget to deal
with the Space Shuttle Program on a
more equal basis.
The impact on mission assurance and
the rigor in operations planning and
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preparation could be the most
significant technical legacy the Space
Shuttle Program left the NSS programs.
NASA required participation by the
NSS spacecraft operators in the early
stages of each mission’s planning.
NSS operations personnel quickly
realized that this early involvement
resulted in improved operations
or survivability and provided the
tools and experience necessary
to deal with the new, more complex
NSS spacecraft.
The impact of the Space Shuttle
Program on the NSS cannot be judged
by the small number of NSS-dedicated
shuttle missions. The policy decision
that moved all NSS spacecraft onto
the shuttle formed a team out of the
most creative engineering minds in the
country. There was friction between
the two organizations, but ultimately
it was the people on this NSS/NASA
team who made it work. It is
unfortunate that, as a result of the
Challenger accident, the end of the
partnership came so soon. The success
of this partnership should be measured
not by the number of missions or
even by the data collected, but rather
by the lasting impact on the NSS
programs’ personnel and the
experiences they brought to future
NSS programs.
US Air Force Space Test Program—
Pathfinder for Department of Defense Space Systems
The US Air Force (USAF) Space Test Program was
established as a multiuser space program whose
role is to be the primary provider of spaceflight
for the entire Department of Defense (DoD)
space research community. From
as early as STS-4 (1982), the USAF Space Test
Program used the shuttle to fly payloads relevant
to the military. The goal of the program was to
exploit the use of the shuttle as a research and
development laboratory. In addition to supplying
the primary payloads on several DoD-dedicated
missions, more than 250 secondary payloads
and experiments flew on 95 shuttle missions.
Space Test Program payloads flew in the shuttle
middeck, cargo bay, Spacelab, and Spacehab,
and on the Russian space station Mir during the
Shuttle-Mir missions in the mid 1990s.
A Department of Defense pico-satellite known as Atmospheric Neutral Density
Experiment (ANDE) is released from the STS-116 (2006) payload bay. ANDE consists
of two micro-satellites that measure the density and composition of the low-Earth
orbit atmosphere while being tracked from the ground. The data are used to better
predict the movement of objects in orbit.
Another Legacy:
Relationship with
USSR and Its Allies
In 1972, with the US announcement
of the Space Shuttle as its primary
space transportation system, the
USSR quickly adapted to keep pace.
“Believing the Space Shuttle to be a
military threat to the Soviet Union,
officials of the USSR Ministry of
Defense found little interest in lunar
bases or giant space stations. What
they wanted was a parallel deterrent
to the shuttle.” Premier Leonid
Brezhnev, Russian sources reported,
was particularly distraught at the
thought of a winged spacecraft on an
apparently routine mission in space
suddenly swooping down on Moscow
and delivering an unthinkably
dangerous cargo.
Russian design bureaus offered a
number of innovative counter-
capabilities, but Brezhnev and the
Ministry of Defense were adamant that
a near match was vital. They may not
have known what the American
military was planning with the shuttle,
but they wanted to be prepared for
exactly what it might be. The Soviets
were perplexed by the decision to
go forward with the Space Shuttle.
Their estimates of cost-performance,
particularly over their own
mass-produced space launch vehicles,
were very high. It seemed to make little
practical sense until the announcement
that a military shuttle launch facility
at Vandenberg Air Force Base was
planned; according to one Soviet space
scientist, “… trajectories from
Vandenberg allowed an overflight of
the main centers of the USSR on
the first orbit. So our hypothesis was
that the development of the shuttle
was mainly for military purposes.”
It was estimated that a military payload
could reenter Earth’s atmosphere from
orbit and engage any target within the
USSR in 3 to 4 minutes—much faster
than the anticipated 10 minutes from
launch to detonation by US nuclear
submarines stationed off Arctic
coastlines. This drastically changed the
deterrence calculations of top Soviet
decision makers.
Indeed, deterrence was the great
game of the Cold War. Each side had
amassed nuclear arsenals sufficient
to destroy the other side many times
over, and any threat to the precarious
balance of terror the two sides had
achieved was sure to spell doom.
The key to stability was the capacity
to deny any gain from a surprise or
first strike. A guaranteed response in
the form of a devastating counterattack
was the hole card in this international
game of bluff and brinksmanship.
Any development that threatened to
mitigate a full second strike was a
menace of the highest order.
Several treaties had been signed
limiting or barring various anti-satellite
activities, especially those targeted
against nuclear launch detection
capabilities (in a brute attempt to blind
the second-strike capacity of the other
side). The shuttle, with its robotic arm
used for retrieving satellites in orbit,
could act as an anti-satellite weapon in
a crisis, expensive and dangerous as its
use might be. Thus, the shuttle could
get around prohibitions against
anti-satellite capabilities through its
public image as a peaceful NASA space
plane. So concerned were the Soviets
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The Historical Legacy
with the potential capability of the
shuttle, they developed designs for at
least two orbiting “laser-equipped battle
stations” as a counter and conducted
more than 20 “test launches” of a
massive ground-launched anti-satellite
weapon in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the 1978-1979 strategic arms
limitation talks, the Soviets asked for
a guarantee that the shuttle would not
be used for anti-satellite purposes.
The United States refused. In 1983,
the USSR offered to prohibit the
stationing of any weapons in space,
if the United States would agree.
The catch was the shuttle could not
be used for military activities.
In exchange, the Soviets would
likewise limit the Mir space station
from military interaction—an
untenable exchange.
So a shuttle-equivalent space plane
was bulldozed through the Soviet
budget and the result was the
Buran/Energiya shuttle and heavy-lift
booster. After more than a decade of
funding—and, for the cash-strapped
Soviet government, a crippling
budget—the unmanned Buran debuted
and flew two orbits before landing
flawlessly in November 1988.
Immediately after the impressive
proof-of-concept flight, the Soviets
mothballed Buran.
James Moltz, professor of national
security at the Naval Postgraduate
School, commented that the
“self-inflicted extreme cost of the
Buran/Energiya program did more
to destabilize the Soviet economy
than any response to the Reagan
administration’s efforts in the 1980s.”
If so, the Space Shuttle can be given
at least partial credit for winning
the Cold War.
The Historical Legacy
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Buran/Energiya shuttle and heavy-lift booster, built by the USSR, flew once—uncrewed—in 1988.
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