It’s been exactly 4 years since the last launch of the last Space Shuttle, namely Atlantis with the flight number STS-135, marking the 135th overall flight of a Space Shuttle. So, it’s almost half a decade without the Space Shuttle and it’s already 34 years since the launch of the Shuttle Program.
The recent launches of commercial rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) and the successful launch of the European Space Agency (ESA) of the “IXV” space vehicle, led me to wishing to reflect on the outcomes of the Shuttle program and the future that lies ahead from the end of this program.
The Space Shuttle began as the concept of a craft that could launch in space as a rocket and land on Earth as a plane. It was fully reusable, with all stages being recovered and most notably, the Shuttle itself!
This program was announced during the mission before the final Apollo, Apollo 16. As a matter of fact, the Space Shuttle program was announced to its first ever pilot at one of his most important moments, on the Moon! It is true, John Young, the already veteran astronaut of Gemini 3 and 10, Apollo 10 and at this time, Apollo 16 mission commander was told that the House of Representatives approved the Shuttle program while having a walk on the Moon!
As an overall recap, it’s not an exaggeration to claim that we would never be as far as we’re today in Space Exploration if it wasn’t for the Space Shuttle.
But, what was so special about it after all?
In reality? Everything! But wait it can’t be really ‘everything, can it’? No, it really was the most amazing and complex craft that NASA has ever built, for many reasons!
In the Engineering aspect, the most noteworthy part that is still considered top notch technologically is the engine. To this day, it remains the only spacecraft engine ever that can turn itself up to 10° in any direction! It might not sound that big, but without that difference a craft like the Shuttle could have never got to Space, not with engines on it at least. Also, it remains the only throttable spaceplane engine ever! In other words, all other space engines only work at 100% and 0% throttle, but the Shuttle works just like a car. In your car, you don’t have to go at either 0, or 240km/h, you usually travel in between. Well, so did the Shuttle!
Not to mention that no other craft has ever managed to bring up to 7 people in orbit, the most ever in one single craft. In addition, before Space X’ Falcon 9 Stage 1 recovery, the Shuttle was the only fully reusable spacecraft. And to the day, it’s the only ever non capsule design to carry humans in orbit. That led to some problems that were unprecedented but they will be discussed later.
It was its uniqueness however that allowed it to carry weights into orbit that the Soyuz could never carry, neither any of today’s rockets. This led it to some truly amazing feats!
And which were these amazing feats?
In short, two truly amazing ones. First, the International Space Station! It’s a well known fact that the ISS would have never existed without the Shuttle, since no other craft could have carried all that load into orbit and successfully docked it with the Station, without the CanadArm. Yes, there was the SkyLab, but the SkyLab was basically the third stage of a Saturn V, with which the station couldn’t had further expanded or upgraded.
The other one? The Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble really pushed the Shuttle to its limits, not once, but six times! The Hubble had to be deployed 3 times higher than the normal operational range of the shuttle. But because of a mistake when the deployment Shuttle had landed, it was found that the Hubble wasn’t focused, because of a mistake in the construction. If it wasn’t for the Space Shuttle, the Hubble now would be a 1.5 billion dollar orbiting waste! Not only was a second Shuttle sent to fix it, but it also upgraded its capabilities!
Now about these dark pages in the History of the Shuttle.
- Space Shuttle Challenger – STS 51-L – 28/1/1986
- Space Shuttle Columbia – STS 107 – 1/2/2003
The Shuttle had unfortunately two tragical accidents in its history… None of them would have happened if a conventional capsule design was used instead of the Shuttle and this lack of knowledge towards a craft of this nature, had the most expensive price to their crew, their life.
The first one, the Challenger was a special mission. It carried a teacher astronaut, to teach to her class from space! Unfortunately, NASA while being afraid of the cold weather and its relation with the flammables of the Shuttle, dismissed the weather as a non important factor and gave the Go for launch. This mistake out of pride costed the life of these astronauts, as an explosion after Launch destroyed both the Shuttle and its Boosters. The shock and the grief was so intense that the Shuttle never flied again for 3 years!
The second one, Columbia was also a very special mission. Despite the devotion of the Shuttle to the construction of the ISS at this point, the crew of Columbia performed very important experiments that could have only been done in orbit. While the high speed cams recorded an impact during launch, the Mission Control disregarded the potential threat, as it was caused by foam. However, the Heat Shield did not survive the impact and as a result, the crew died during reentry.
The common pattern in these two tragical mistakes is disregarding potential threats. It is sad to say that NASA and Space Agencies globally had to learn from such mistakes to be extremely strict about launching and returning conditions. Following the Columbia accident, the Heat Shields of manned crafts returning from Space are checked and now launch criteria is much stricter. For example the Orion launch was scrubbed for the next day due to weather conditions. It’s worth noting that Space is a very risky business and these cases must be always checked, because if they’re not, these tragical incidences might happen again…
Contrary, however to these very dark pages of NASA, The future of Space Travel in general, is very bright!
Not only are we seeing for the first time a booster that can land on a launch site by Space X, not only is Space Travel becoming cheaper and more reliable with the Commercial Resupply Program, but, we’re ready to take the next step. The Shuttle was surely a giant leap in Space Walks, Mission Control, Science and Long Term Missions in Space, all of which will be necessary in humanity’s next great adventure, Mars, with the aid of Orion, that lends its launch engines from the brilliant Shuttle engines!