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A 40 Year Perspective on Spaceflight

Major anniversaries are celebrated for the first man in space and first space shuttle

by Michelle Evans


This month marks the 40th year since humans first took to the vacuum of space and looked back at the Earth from a perspective never before witnessed.


On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome for a one-orbit transit of Earth. Just a few years later, Yuri lost his life in a jet accident, never knowing that the race to the Moon that he started was fulfilled (see our History Corner on page 3 for more about the events surrounding Vostok 1).


Twenty years after Yuri’s leap into space, the United States celebrated his achievement by launching the first mission of the Space Shuttle. Now, over 100 missions and another 20 years down the timeline, trips into space by the shuttle seem routine enough that they are rarely ever covered on the evening news. It certainly has not always been this way.


The shuttle program was troubled by budget shortfalls and design compromises from almost the first day. Engineering took a back seat to the congressional money axe and to the political power of the military. What was supposed to be a simple space truck turned out to be the most complicated machine ever built by man.


First flight of Columbia was delayed by two years because of problems with the main engines and the heat tiles. We should have celebrated this second decade of the shuttle era in 1999 if all had gone according to plan.


When all was finally a go for launch, Columbia was ready to take flight on April 10, 1981. But then the inevitable happened and the five new generation computers on the flight deck of the shuttle orbiter refused to talk properly with each other. A two day scrub was called as the technicians ironed out the final bugs. At 07:00 EST on April 12, 1981, STS-1 blasted from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Two decades after Gagarin, a reusable spacecraft with wings and a tail made it into space.


The shuttle had flown before, but that was only a series of atmospheric test flights in the summer of 1977 with the non-orbit-rated Enterprise. Those flights had proven the concept of landing the shuttle without power, but had not prepared anyone for the sight of a rocket mounted sideways taking off into space.


Up until now, all rockets had their components stacked one atop another, a seemingly reasonable and common sense approach. Now the shuttle system had this fuel tank and two solid boosters that looked fairly normal, but with the orbiter stuck as an afterthought onto the side, like a giant gnat catching a ride.


But fly it did. Three powerful engines on the rear of the shuttle gobbled fuel from the external tank. Then two solid boosters roared to life and nothing could keep it on the ground.


Once on orbit, all the extra paraphernalia was discarded and Columbia was on its own for two days of checkout. Except for several heat tiles falling off at launch, everything went perfectly.


On April 14, at about 10:15 PST, Columbia glided over Edwards Air Force Base at Mach 1, announcing its arrival with what would become signature twin sonic booms. Gliding majestically around a great circle, the shuttle was chased by two small T-38s that took photos and checked the condition of the orbiter before touchdown. Then, five minutes later, the gear came out, the nose came up, and Columbia crossed in front of the thousands of people lining both sides of the lakebed, before touching down on the hard clay of Runway 23, throwing up a great rooster tail of dust.


A few hours passed as the crew tidied up the orbiter, exited the craft, had their medical checkups, and got a clean change of flightsuits. The mission commander, John Young, then stepped in front of a microphone to greet NASA’s distinguished guests and said “We aren’t very far, the human race isn’t, from going to the stars.”


It was a wonderful moment as we all thought that we had finally entered the era of routine access to space.


Two years later, a second orbiter, Challenger, entered the fleet, followed by Discovery in August 1984 and Atlantis in October 1985.


Less than five years after STS-1, everything we hoped for was proven false on a cold morning in January, 1986. Nearly three additional years went by fixing the problems that caused the loss of seven astronauts on Challenger. Now the shuttle was no longer considered operational, only experimental. But a replacement was built and christened by the children of the country. Endeavour rolled out of the Palmdale factory ten years and two weeks after Columbia first took flight.


Seventy-seven more missions followed to get us to the point we are today, half way through the planned life of the shuttle fleet. Things are looking upward once again with the construction of the International Space Station now well underway. Where will we be on the 40th anniversary of the shuttle? Will it still be our only access to space or will we finally have commercial spaceliners? Will we still be locked in Earth orbit, just a few hundred miles up, or will we have the will to explore again?