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Humanity in Space: The science of space shuttles

How the idea of a space shuttle became a reality, and then part of history

By Angela Garrity, Guest blogger

In this episode of The Humanity in Space series, the Incredible Jeff ushers the examination of the Space Shuttle. Buckle up and prepare for liftoff as we journey to where many can only dream to be.

Like many great ideas in space exploration, the space shuttle finds in roots way before we ever made it to space.

A photo of a space shuttle floating in space, with part of earth showing in the background

In the 1930s, Germany was pursuing an idea called Silbervogel, a reusable winged rocket that could fly into suborbital space and back into the stratosphere — allowing it to make a trip across the Atlantic Ocean by actual leaps and bounds. The result was to have a way to bomb America in light of the war. Like many outlandish ideas Germany had during that time, this one never became a reality.

After much of the science developed during the war, came over to America as part of “Operation Paperclip,” the U.S. Military and NACA (which would later become NASA in 1958), started to pursue a reusable space plane idea. Eventually, the X-15 was born.

The X-15 set speed and altitude records in the early 1960s, reaching the edge of outer space and returning with data that was essential to the development of future high-speed vehicles — particularly those that were intended to fly back into the atmosphere, such as the space shuttle.

Today, the X-15 still holds the record as the fastest speed ever reached by a piloted rocket-powered airplane.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Airforce began working on the X-20 or the Dyna-soar. This was a spaceplane meant for reconnaissance and satellite maintenance and most closely resembled the space shuttle in design.

Unfortunately, this project was canceled, and the plane was never fully created.

At this same time, the U.S. Air Force and NASA were pursuing lifting bodies – planes that had fixed wings and lift was generated by the fuselage. These early designs directly informed how the space shuttle would come to function.

NASA reviewed twenty-nine potential designs for the space shuttle. They determined that a design with two side boosters should be used and the booster should be reusable to reduce cost.

In January of 1972, President Richard Nixon approved the space shuttle program and NASA decided on its final design in March of that year.

In 1974, construction began on the very first shuttle, Orbital Vehicle 101, which would later be named Enterprise. Enterprise was designed as a test vehicle and did not include engines or heat shielding.

Construction was completed in 1976 and Enterprise was moved to Edwards Air Force Base to begin testing. Enterprise underwent flight testing with the shuttle carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747 aircraft, that had been modified to carry the orbiter.

In February of 1977, Enterprise began the approach and landing tests and underwent captive flights, where it remained attached to the shuttle carrier for the duration of the flight.

In August 1977, Enterprise conducted its first glide test, where it detached from the shuttle carrier aircraft and landed at Edwards Air Force Base.

The space shuttle program was supposed to be done the following year, but NASA experienced significant delays in the space shuttle’s thermal protection system. NASA chose to use ceramic tiles for thermal protection, as the shuttle could then be constructed of lightweight aluminum and the tiles could be individually replaced, as needed.

At this same time, construction began on Columbia, in 1975. It was delivered to Kennedy Space Center in 1979.

The first space shuttle mission, STS-1, would be the first time NASA performed a crewed, first flight of this spacecraft.

A photo of a space shuttle taken by the International Space Station, where you can see the shuttle floating over the state of Florida

On April 12, 1981, the space shuttle launched for the first time and was piloted by NASA astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen. During that two-day mission, Young and Crippen tested equipment onboard the shuttle and found several of the ceramic tiles had fallen off the topside of Columbia during launch.

On July 4, 1982, STA-4, flown by astronauts Ken Mattingly and Henry Hartsfield, landed at Edwards Air Force Base. President Ronald Regan and his wife, Nancy, met the crew and delivered a speech. After STS-4, NASA declared the space shuttle program operational.

At launch, the external tank was connected to two solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that provided more than 70 percent of the space shuttle’s thrust. These were the largest solid rocket motors ever flown and the first solid rocket motors used on a crewed spacecraft. These two, 150-foot-tall rockets would be jet assented two minutes after launch, parachuted back to Earth, to be recovered in the ocean.

The external tank had a main function to supply the rocket boosters with liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The external tank was the only part of the shuttle system that was never reused.

For the first two mission, STS-1 and STS-2, the external tank was painted white to protect the insulation that covers most of the tank. Improvements in testing showed that this was not required. The weight saved by not painting the tank resulted in an increased in payload capability to orbit.

The orbiter was the spacecraft itself. Five models were produced and sent to space — Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Enterprise paved the way but was never flown into orbit.

The orbiter has design elements and capabilities of both a rocket and an aircraft, that allowed it to launch vertically and then land like a glider.

The shuttle had to be carefully constructed and maneuvered while it was within the vehicle assembly building (VAB building) inside Kennedy Space Center. There are still guidelines on the floor to show just how far you can turn the space shuttle and still get it outside the door.

The crew compartment of the shuttle comprised three decks and was the pressurized, habitable area on all space shuttle missions.

The cockpit consists of two seats for the commander and pilot, as well as an additional two to four seats for crew members.

The mid-deck was located below the cockpit and is where the galley and crew bunks are set up, as well as three or four crew member seats. The mid-deck also contains the airlock, which can support two astronauts on an EVA as well as access to pressurized research modules.

The orbiter's 60-foot payload bay, comprising most of the fuselage, could accommodate cylindrical payloads up to fifteen feet in diameter. Information declassified in 2011, showed that these measurements were specifically chosen to accommodate the KH-9 Hexagon spy satellite operated by the national reconnaissance office.

In 1973, European ministers met in Belgium to authorize Western Europe’s crude orbital project and its main contribution to the space shuttle, the space lab program.

Space Bab would provide the multidisciplinary orbital space laboratory and additional space equipment for the shuttle. Supported by a modular system of pressurized modules, pallets, and systems, Space Lab missions executed a multidisciplinary science, logistics, and international cooperation. Over twenty-nine missions flew on subjects including astronomy, microgravity, radar, and life sciences. Even the Hubble telescope was part of the Space Lab hardware.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many flights involved space science missions on the Space Lab or launching various types of satellites and science probes.

By the late ’90s and early 2000s, the focus shifted more to servicing the Space Station, with fewer satellite launches. Almost the entire space shuttle reentry procedure, except for lowering the landing gear and deploying the air data probes, was normally performed under computer control. The re-entry could be flown entirely manually if an emergency arose.

A close up of a space shuttle in space, with part earth showing in the background

The space shuttle program became the staple of modern space exploration and the face of NASA in the ’80s and ’90s. Two disasters leave black marks on its almost flawless record, and through those terrible tragedies, NASA was able to learn from their unfortunate mistakes.

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated seventy-three seconds after launch. The explosion killed all seven crew members and was felt amongst all walks of life.

One of the crew members, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, an American teacher turned astronaut, became every woman of the crew. Many schools across the world tuned into the launch, as a way to show students the idea of “You can be anything”.

The failure in one of the rockets O-ring connectors that was warned to be faulty by NASA engineers if launched in unfavorable temperatures. The warnings, unfortunately, were not heeded by NASA managers.

On February 1, 2003, Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, killing its entire crew. There was damage to the wing during launch, and again, NASA management ignored warnings from engineers that the damage should be looked at closely and repaired before re-entry.

Both tragedies paved the way for better understanding between management and workers within the NASA program. Many steps were taken to ensure safer procedures moving forward, including having better checks and balances, better safety measures and better spacesuit designs being implemented for astronauts.

Recently, Kennedy Space Center in Florida unveiled an incredible memorial to the men and women who lost their lives in these disasters, which really puts a human element on the brave astronauts that risk their lives still to this day to further space exploration.

There were many giant leaps for mankind thanks to the missions under the space shuttle program.

STS-30 was the first space shuttle mission to launch an interplanetary probe and the space shuttle Atlantis brought Magellan to space and launched it to Venus.

The launch of the Hubble telescope, which still to this day gives us incredible views of our galaxy and beyond, was part of the STS-31 mission of the space shuttle Discovery.

The longest space shuttle mission was in 1996 on the space shuttle Columbia, lasting seventeen days and fifteen hours.

Space shuttle Endeavor in 1998 brought the first pieces of the International Space Station to space.

The space shuttle program ended in 2011.

There are few ways to view the decommissioned shuttles, but none are as impressive as the Atlantic Experience at Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. To be able to immerse yourself in the history and science involved in the space shuttle, directly under the shuttle Atlantis, as it hangs exactly as it would have in space, is awe-inspiring and breathtaking.

Catch this episode of Fueled by Death Cast The Space Shuttle: Humanity in Space to see how far we’ve come with every yesterday and the direction we are headed with every tomorrow.

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