This month we look at the recently retired Space Shuttle.
It took off like a rocket, orbited like a spacecraft and landed like a glider. And it came from the simplest of ideas: replace the one-shot Apollo missions with reusable technology that would make visiting space as easy as catching a bus. Enter the space shuttle: the world’s first reusable crewed orbital spacecraft. On the upside, it was the most successful space launch programme in history, with Nasa sending up 135 missions in three decades. On the downside it lost 40 per cent of its operational fleet in two catastrophic failures: Challenger, 73 seconds after liftoff on 28 January 1986; and Columbia, 16 minutes before its scheduled landing time on 1 February 2003. A total of 14 astronauts died. According to astronaut Richard Garriott de Cayeux, these tragedies brought “survivability expectations to about a one in 70 chance of death, which is far higher than we should ask of our Nasa explorers, and far higher than is acceptable for future commercial and private access to space”.
The three surviving space-worthy orbiter vehicles - Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour - were taken out of service in 2011 and have been distributed among America’s great museums. A sixth spacecraft - Enterprise - that was used for early testing but never made it into space, was moved in June 2012 to New York, so marking the final voyage of any of the fleet.
Despite the common misconception that it was simply an aeroplane that could go into space, the shuttle was a complex launch and orbit system comprising three separate units: the orbiter vehicle, external fuel tank and a pair of solid rocket boosters. Space aficionados call this arrangement ‘the stack’ while confusingly, the popular press preferred to call the orbiter vehicle alone ‘the space shuttle.’ Although touted as a reusable system it was only partially so, as the fuel tank would burn up in the atmosphere. The boosters were dropped into the ocean after takeoff and were recovered and recycled, while the orbiter vehicle was able to leave orbit using onboard thrusters, before decelerating and gliding down to specially cleared runways.
Despite Nasa’s promise that the shuttle would be cheap, reliable and safe, it was none of these. The overall bill for the project was almost $200bn (twice Nasa’s expectation) having delivered only around half of the projected missions. In terms of cash, the project cost America more than the combined total of landing on the Moon, developing the atomic bomb and connecting the Pacific and Atlantic with the Panama Canal. So the question has to be: what did they get for their money?
The main work of the shuttle was to transport cargo into space and in this it succeeded. The Hubble Space Telescope, Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and Chandra X-ray Observatory all hitched a ride to the heavens on the space shuttle. Critical maintenance missions on Hubble were performed by the shuttle crew, while the Magellan, Galileo and Ulysses probes all got a lift on the shuttle to begin their space explorations.
Despite these resounding achievements, the unique success of the space shuttle was in its conducting the lion’s share of the heavy lifting of International Space Station components into orbit. On the diplomatic front, cooperation between Russia and the US on the ISS helped to bring conflicting super powers into a more harmonious relationship. Space diplomacy is cheaper than war, but astronaut Duane Carey, who flew in the shuttle in 2002, is not alone in thinking the entire project a “magnificent failure”.
Next month: Omega Olympic Chronograph