Thursday, September 08, 2011

End of the Shuttle Program - Part II - Early memories

I came of age at about the same time as the Space Shuttle did.  I don't remember the first time I heard of the shuttle but it might have been when it was announced officially during the Apollo 16 flight to the Moon in 1972.  I was an avid Apollo viewer back then at age 11 or 12 and could have called myself an "Apollo Geek" like I do today.  While disappointed in the end of Moon flights, NASA and the U.S. Government advertised a robust future which included the Shuttle lifting things like space stations and telescopes and satellites into orbit.  It would fly almost weekly and be treated much like an airliner with only routine maintenance between flights.  Early plans had it lofted into the stratosphere piggyback on a winged booster that would return to land on a runway like the shuttle itself would at the end of its mission.  Ultimately, shuttle would support those planned missions to Mars, if not in the late 1980s, then maybe in the 1990s or thereabouts.  As my interests in space grew into an interest in science and then in Astronomy in particular, I watched as the shuttle started to become reality.  I was in high school in 1977 when the Enterprise was rolled out and then made its first un-powered drop tests by the end of that year.  The sight of the shuttle being carried on the back of a 747 was awe inspiring.

As I graduated from high school in 1978, the shuttle program was advancing, but appeared to be a bit delayed.  Early estimates would have had its first launch about the time I graduated, but it was now projected into late 1979 or even 1980.  Having watched SkyLab fly over with humans on board, I had hoped an early shuttle flight would visit America's first space station and provide a much needed reboost before it re-entered the atmosphere.  NASA even talked about such a mission.  As I entered college at the University of Arizona in Tucson in the fall of 1978, I looked forward to many years of space shuttle flights starting soon, but the delays kept adding up.  It had been more than 3 years since the last Apollo flight that had docked with the Soyuz during the Apollo Soyuz Test Project and the interval before more human flights into space by American Astronauts seemed way too long.  Then, during my first full summer in Tucson, in 1979, it was clear that the SkyLab rescue mission was just not going to fly in time - SkyLab was dropping literally like a rock and would de-orbit soon and shuttle was at least a year off.  I watched SkyLab fly over that summer and on the morning of July 11, 1979, I watched in the pre-dawn sky as it made one of its last orbits around Earth.  A few hours later, it burned up over the Indian ocean, dropping bits of wreckage onto Australia.

I was an avid space nut, infected by moonwalking astronauts at a young age, so I paid close attention to the development of the shuttle.  Columbia appeared fresh out of the factory at Palmdale CA and was flown across country on that 747, complete with lots of missing tiles.  It's first flight was still a long ways off, but at least it's preparation would be happening near its launch pad.

In December 1980, I was in Florida for Christmas visiting my parents who had moved to Miami when my Dad (who was in the Coast Guard) was transfered there.  We went up to Merritt Island to visit my Uncle James.  Since he worked at KSC, he got a car pass so that we could go to the rollout of Columbia to the launch pad for its first ever flight.  The majestic but microscopically slow crawl to the pad took a long time, but we watched in a large crowd outside the VAB as its white tank and boosters preceded the shuttle out of the huge assembly building.  Things looked very different to these eyes trained to watch Apollo Saturn V rockets going to the pad - the launch platform no longer contained the huge access tower and the Shuttle and its tank and boosters looked like they might just fall over standing there apparently unsupported.  Of course, the launch tower of the Saturn V provided no support, just access and with the Shuttle, the launch tower was now affixed to the launch pad and the crawler would take the platform with shuttle out there.  We watched the stack creep out of the massive VAB - the shuttle was huge, but was dwarfed by the even more huge VAB and would have been dwarfed by a Saturn V as well.  The crew of Columbia's STS-1 flight spoke to the crowd.  John Young and Bob Crippen talked of all the hope and expectations that we all had for the space shuttle.  We stood on a crawler track next to one of the old Saturn V launch towers on a cold Florida December morning.  I was quite impressed.

Almost 4 months later on April 12, 1981, I sat in front of a color TV as the countdown for STS-1 proceeded.  There on TV was the same shuttle stack that I had watched leaving the VAB.   I watched in anticipation - there had been a scrub 2 days earlier - as the countdown proceeded.  And finally a sight more spectacular than a Saturn V launch appeared on screen.  The Saturn V used kerosene and oxygen in its first stage and its thrust to weight ratio was closer to 1.0 than the Shuttle, so it slowly rose off the launch pad and into the sky in an almost stately manner on a tail of flame and a little dark colored smoke.  Columbia lept off the launchpad like a bucking bronco!  It's solid rocket motors were bright and spectacular as it climbed into the sky, slowly rolling into the right direction before starting to pitch over as it rose into the clear blue sky.  It left a trail like none I'd ever seen during Apollo!

Two days later, I was watching the TV again, this time a view from Edwards Air Force Base in California as we prepared for the impending arrival of the first glider from outer space.  Would the shuttle be able to re-enter safely?  It had lost some tiles on launch, so that was worrisome (it would have been much more so if we had known the ultimate fate of Columbia, but that is a story for another blog).  A spacecraft had never flown like an airplane back into the atmosphere before.  And the shuttle had exactly one chance to hit the runway - there was no going around since it had no jet engines and was only a glider.  Finally, after watching cameras pan over the crowds out at Edwards, all awaiting the shuttle's return, we heard the now well known double sonic booms and then the long range tracking cameras picked up the shuttle high over the California desert.  The dark black-tiled belly of the orbiter looked so majestic as it made its turns overhead and soon, the T-38 chase planes caught up to it, diving for the desert floor trying to keep up with the flying brick that was Columbia.  As the mountains appeared in frame, the landing gear dropped and then, it was kicking up dust on the dry lakebed runway it was touching down on.  Then the nosewheels dropped and it rolled for what seemed like forever.  Later, we watched, still fascinated with this new spacecraft, as John Young, still in his golden-brown spacesuit bounded down the stairs, fist pumping and obviously very energized as he walked around the orbiter by the first space shuttle landing from orbit!  The Shuttle era was upon us!

Here is a video with highlights from the STS-1 flight of Columbia:

Watching the 2nd launch of Columbia wasn't quite as memorable, but I watched as long as the networks would cover them.  In November 1982, I went to Edwards myself to watch the landing of STS-5.  It was  an overcast morning and when we heard the sonic booms, the shuttle was nowhere to be seen as it circled high above the clouds overhead.  Just before landing, it dropped through the clouds and was on the runway in seconds.  In years that followed, I watched shuttles overhead in orbit.  I watched shuttles deliver satellites into orbit.  I watched astronauts try out their own little spacecraft in the "Manned Maneuvering Units" or MMUs.  I watched them retrieve and repair satellites.  The space shuttles seemed to be delivering on their promise and were ramping up slowly in launch rates.  By 1985, they launched a record 9 flights into orbit.  Spaceflight was becoming routine, or so it seemed.

The End of the Shuttle program - part I

It's been 2 months since I watched Atlantis rocket into the Florida sky on its way to the International Space Station.  I'll cherish my memories of that day as well as those that followed as we first watched the launch, then watched the SRBs return to port, then eventually, we watched the last space shuttle landing before returning to reality and home.  About 8 minutes after Atlantis disappeared behind the cloud deck about 40 seconds after liftoff, I continued to intently listen to the NASA TV audio - long after about half of the other viewers at Space View Park were heading for their cars and the long parking lot streets they must have experienced.  I listened to all the launch calls and all the abort mode calls as I was amazed at how quickly people started leaving.  Launch wasn't over!  SRB sep still hadn't happened and they were heading for the exits.  It was like Dodger stadium in the 6th inning!  Out of sight, out of mind - as soon as the shuttle pierced the cloud deck and vanished above the clouds, folks were off.  They hadn't even got to the "Go at throttleup" call & they were heading out.  Finally, I heard the call I was waiting for - "MECO!"  That's when I take my first deep breath, knowing that everything went fine all the way into orbit.  Until then, they are still launching and there are still a gazillion things that can go wrong and cause NASA and our brave crew to have a bad day.  "MECO." I hear over the Space View Park loudspeaker. I pumped my fist into the air and called out "They're in orbit!"  And then I also pointed out: "135 launches and not a single failure in the 3 main engines on all of those flights!" Back in April 1981, if you'd asked me what the most likely cause of the first shuttle accident, I would have said it was the shuttle main engines.  They have to burn perfectly for about 8 and a half minutes & there are so many moving parts and so many things pushed to unimaginable limits.  No way they would fly 135 times and not once have a significant failure!  Well, they did.  There were a couple close calls - just before Challengers fatal flight, an engine shut down in flight a little early, but it was only a sensor error and it was late enough during launch that the shuttle was able to limp into orbit with the only ever abort call during launch, "Abort to Orbit" where they burned the other engines a little longer and made it into a useful orbit without having to make an emergency landing at some runway around the world.  There was another close call during the first launch with a female commander when the engine nozzles had a small leak in a propellant line used to cool the engine bells.  But that wasn't in the guts of the main engines even.  135 times 3 times 8.5 minutes (less about 7 minutes for 3 of them on poor Challenger).  That is about 57 hours of main engine burn time!  If you had told me that the main engines would burn for almost 2.5 days without a single failure back in 1981, I would have laughed you out of the room.

The shuttle was an amazing vehicle, despite its flaws and shortcomings.  In a few blog posts, I plan to talk a bit more about the Space Shuttle.  I just wanted to start this off on the 2 month anniversary of the last ever Space Shuttle launch.  Click on this link to see my view of that launch:

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