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The Legacy of the Space Shuttle

by Andrew Moir

The shuttle Atlantis fell to Earth today following an 8 day mission to re-supply the International Space Station. It was the final voyage for the craft and the end of the Space Shuttle program. The shuttle landed on runway 15 at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida marking NASA’s 135th shuttle mission and the end of an era in American manned spaceflight. While the future is uncertain at NASA, we can look back at the successes, tragedies and legacy of the Space Shuttle.

The shuttle represented a step forward in space craft design. For the first time a manned craft could achieve orbit and then land allowing it to make multiple missions into space. The project was officially announced in 1972 as the Nixon administration sought a means to bring down the cost of space travel. They hoped the shuttle system would allow up to 50 missions a year. The prototype, Enterprise, was unveiled on17 September 1976 and carried out a number of flight tests within the atmosphere. Although originally intended to be refitted for orbital flight, design changes meant the Enterprise never made it into space.

Columbia launched on 12 April 1981 on a test mission, orbiting the Earth 36 times. It would undertake 3 more test flights before its first official voyage in November 1982, where a four-man crew deployed a commercial satellite into orbit. Over its operational lifetime Columbia would spend more than 300 days in space going on 28 missions in total. On 1 February 2003 Columbia was destroyed while re-entering the atmosphere killing all seven crewmembers. Following the disaster, the Bush administration announced the shuttles would be retired following the completion of the International Space Station to make way for a new generation of rockets.

This was the second great shuttle disaster following the destruction of Challenger in 1986. Challenger was the second shuttle launched and its more dynamic design meant it carried out the majority of missions: performing 85% of flights throughout 1983 and 1984. The busy shuttle accomplished much in its time including putting the first American woman, African-American, and Canadian in space; as well as the first night launch and night landing of a Space Shuttle.

Challenger was destroyed as it broke up just 73 seconds into its 10th mission on 28 January 1986. The accident was caused by a fault in a seal on its right solid rocket booster. All seven crew members lost their lives and the shuttle program was grounded for two and a half years.

Through the lifetime of the program there were five shuttles – Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, with the last of those launched in 1992. Although overshadowed by tragedy the shuttles achieved much in their 30 years.

The shuttle is responsible for much of our current understanding and view of space as it delivered three of NASA‘s observatories – the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and perhaps most famously the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble has been repaired several times on shuttle missions effectively extending its lifetime by several years.

The shuttles on board Spacelab demonstrated how space had become open to more than just pilots. Scientists and engineers could carry out small scale experiments in a weightless environment providing answers as to how plants, animals and the human body could cope.

Many of earth’s unmanned probes were launched from the cargo bay of the Space Shuttles. Our knowledge of our own solar system would be limited had the Galileo probe never flown to Jupiter; or if the European Ulysses spacecraft had never charted the sun.

Perhaps the greatest achievement is the construction of the International Space Station, assembled and expanded over years from modules. The merits of the station are perhaps yet to be seen but the experience of space construction could prove vital if the human race chooses to explore space further.

The shuttle never reached the iconic heights of the Apollo missions: space lost its romance and there were no era-defining images of walks on the moon. Perhaps the most memorable moments are the tragedies. It failed in its ultimate purpose to reduce the cost of space flight, but its ground-breaking design survived three decades, advancing scientific understanding and paving the way for the future.

The remaining shuttles are set be put on display in museums. The American icon is history.

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