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NASA Langley Worked on Space Shuttle From Start
The first space shuttle, Columbia, lifted off on April 12, 1981. But the work to make that launch happen started more than a decade before -- at the same time the Apollo program was sending men to the moon.

Thousands of people across NASA helped develop a reusable spacecraft, including about 350 at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Langley, founded in 1917, had decades of expertise in the performance of winged flying machines and "space planes."

Shaping the Future

One of the first places the new design appeared was in NASA Langley wind tunnels. Various configurations logged almost 60,000 hours in a dozen facilities, according to researchers.

Given its complexity and mission it took that much time and effort to get the shuttle geometry right. It was Langley engineers who contributed to the technology base for a reusable space vehicle, developed preliminary designs and recommended the shape be a modified delta wing, rather that a conventional straight wing.

Taking the Heat

Once NASA decided on the shuttle's shape it had to make sure the vehicle could take the heat of reentry into Earth's atmosphere. Once again Langley know-how made a difference.

Researchers conducted structures and materials tests to determine requirements for various areas of the vehicle.
early shuttle design wind tunnel test, 1972
Researchers tested this shuttle design in Langley's Transonic Dynamics Tunnel in 1972. Credit: NASA

Then they tackled a particular thorny issue -- the fragile tiles of the thermal protection system that guarded the shuttle and the astronauts on board from reentry heating. Tests showed a problem with the adhesive that bonded the tiles to the shuttle's aluminum skin. A battery of studies investigated the issue and eventually certified the thermal protection system as flight worthy.

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shuttle tire testing
Langley engineers put the rubber to the road to improve shuttle tires and runways. Credit: NASA

Also flight worthy as a result of Langley independent design, analyses and simulation studies were the orbiter's flight control and guidance systems.

Rubber Meets the Road

The space shuttle marked the first time a spacecraft needed tires to return home, so Langley put its Aircraft Landing Dynamics Facility to good use. Engineers did landing tests on shuttle main and nose gear tires and brake systems. They also conducted runway surface texture studies and recommended modifications to the Kennedy Space Center runway.

Langley expertise in launch abort and crew bailout systems dates back to the Mercury project. It included ditching studies and was relied upon during the years of the space shuttle program as was the Center's long history in aerodynamics research. Hampton engineers were key in defining ascent wing loads.

It Is Rocket Science

The shuttle may have been reusable, but it couldn't lift off into space without its solid
rocket boosters (SRB). Langley engineers played a role there too, both before and after the shuttle Challenger accident in 1986. Before Challenger Langley helped redesign solid rocket booster components.

After Challenger engineers tested O-rings -- the part that failed during the Challenger launch, allowing a breach in the SRB joint that caused the explosion. Other Langley researchers not only studied SRB joints and how to help fix the problem that caused the accident -- they even came up with a whole new SRB joint design.

Others at Langley studied a shuttle net rescue system, much like the arresting gear on an aircraft carrier. The idea was to provide a system that could stop the shuttle safely if it had to land on an alternate runway in the event of an emergency.

Return to Flight Again

After two years of investigations and improvements the shuttle returned into service in 1988. Eighty-eight missions and 15 years later tragedy struck again with the loss of the orbiter Columbia in 2003.

engineer Tom Horvath studies shuttle heating patterns
Researchers studied shuttle heating patterns after the Columbia accident. Credit: NASA

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Langley researchers immediately lent their expertise to help NASA understand what happened and how to avoid a similar accident.

Langley wind tunnel and computer-based studies of shuttle aero-heating helped paint a picture of Columbia during its reentry. Columbia broke apart during the heat of reentry because a piece of external tank foam that struck the orbiter during launch damaged its thermal protection system (TPS).

Langley focused its technical strengths on the TPS -- what could make it fail, how to inspect the TPS without harming it, how to repair it on orbit and when it was safe to fly even with minor damage.

Back to the Lab

To help return the shuttle to flight in 2005 NASA Langley contributed to a better understanding of the foam that fell from the shuttle external (fuel) tank.

Researchers used their knowledge in advanced nondestructive examination techniques to develop new ways of detecting problems in the thermal protection system for both the external tank and the shuttle.

infrared camera for on-orbit inspections
Langley engineers developed an infrared camera (top, center) for on-orbit inspections. Credit: NASA

non-destructive shuttle foam evaluation
Researchers demonstrated nondestructive methods for detection of flaws in foam. Credit: NASA

Engineers developed physics based computer models describing the damage caused by debris striking the shuttle wing leading edge and heat shield tiles.

They also developed concepts to inspect and repair the reinforced-carbon-carbon panels on the orbiter wing leading edge and supported efforts to repair tile damage.

Langley researchers followed up their efforts by conducting wind tunnel tests to ensure that minor damage and repairs to tiles or the wing leading edges would not cause a heating problem when the shuttle returned to Earth.

On Candid Camera

Astronauts also took Langley technology on orbit. Langley developed an infrared camera that crews used to inspect the shuttle in space.

And during the shuttle's final missions Langley researchers, with the help of a Navy optical system, took images unlike those ever seen of the shuttle -- thermal snapshots in flight that may some day be used to create new spacecraft.

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Shuttle Astronauts With Ties to NASA Langley

Astronaut John Glenn John Glenn was chosen as one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts in 1959. He and the other Mercury 7 trained at NASA Langley. Glenn flew first on "Friendship 7" in 1962 and then on the shuttle Discovery during STS-95 in 1998.
› Full Bio
› Friendship 7 | › STS-95

Astronaut Fred Gregory Fred Gregory served as a research test pilot at Langley until selected for the Astronaut Program in January 1978. He flew three shuttle missions STS-51B, 33 and 44 between April 1985 and Dec., 1991.
› Full Bio
› STS-51B | › STS-33 | › STS-44

Astronaut Roy Bridges Roy D. Bridges, Jr., was Director of NASAŹ¼s Langley Research Center from August 10, 2003 until October 3, 2005. He piloted STS-51F in July, 1985.
› Full Bio
› STS-51F

Astronaut Ken Cameron Ken Cameron was at the NASA Engineering & Safety Center based at Langley from Oct. 2003 - June 2007. He flew on three shuttle missions, including STS-37, 56 and 74 between April, 1991 and Nov., 1995.
› Full Bio
› STS-37 | › STS-56 | › STS-74

Astronaut Roger Crouch Roger Crouch was a group leader and researcher at NASA Langley Research Center from 1962 - 1985, specializing in microgravity and space applications. He was a payload specialist on STS-83 and 94, both in 1997.
› Full Bio
› STS-83 | › STS-94

Astronaut Steve Robinson Steve Robinson was working as an aerodynamics researcher and manager at Langley when he became an astronaut in Dec., 1994. He had come to Langley in 1990 from Ames Research Center in Calif. He flew on four shuttle missions: STS-85, 95, 114 and 130 between Aug., 1997 and Feb., 2010.
› Full Bio
› STS-85 | › STS-95 | › STS-114 | › STS-130

Astronaut Charlie Camarda Charlie Camarda worked at NASA Langley for 22 years as a thermal structures engineer before he was selected to be an astronaut in April, 1996. He flew on STS-114 with fellow Langley alumni Steve Robinson in 2005.
› Full Bio
› STS-114

Astronaut Leland Melvin Leland Melvin says Charlie Camarda's selection as an astronaut inspired him to apply. He was chosen In June, 1998 after nine years of research in fiber optic sensors and nondestructive evaluation at Langley. Melvin flew on STS-122 in Feb, 2008 and STS-129 in Nov., 2009
› Full Bio
› STS-122 | › STS-129

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