Library Index » Science Encyclopedia » Part 1 Space Organizations: NASA - A New Agency Is Born, Peaceful Versus Military Purposes, Nasa Shoots For The Moon, Space Science Suffers

Part 1 Space Organizations: NASA - The Shuttle Program

soviet shuttles carried military

In 1972 development got under way at NASA on a reusable space plane called a shuttle. This program was supposed to produce a finished product within five years, but it eventually took twice that long. The first shuttle did not launch until 1981. By this time the Soviet space station Mir had been in orbit for several years. The Soviet space program had pursued—but failed to develop—a reusable space plane. Transportation to and from Mir was accomplished using expendable rocket boosters.

NASA relied on a series of space shuttles to conduct most Earth orbit operations. Throughout the early 1980s shuttles carried satellites for government, military, and commercial clients.

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded seventy-three seconds after liftoff. Seven astronauts were killed. The shuttle fleet was grounded for more than two years as a result. An investigation revealed that a faulty joint in a rocket booster had allowed hot gases to escape that ignited and destroyed the vehicle.

Government investigators also found fault with the entire shuttle program. They complained that NASA managers emphasized schedule over safety. Before the Challenger disaster, shuttles carried commercial and military satellites (called payloads) into space. To reduce the scheduling pressure NASA decided to immediately cease carrying commercial payloads. Military payloads were quickly phased out as well, leaving only scientific payloads. The shuttle's commercial and military clients were forced to turn back to expendable rockets to launch their satellites into orbit.

The loss of the Challenger shuttle forced NASA to scale back shuttle operations. The tragedy brought harsh criticism of NASA from scientists and politicians alike. NASA's can-do culture, left over from the Apollo years, was blamed for making the agency over-confident and overly optimistic about its abilities to safely operate a major space program on a limited budget.

Between 1994 and 1998 NASA shuttles played a major role in a cooperative space venture between the United States and Russia. (When the Soviet Union dissolved into numerous individual republics in 1991, the largest and most powerful, Russia, carried on the old Soviet space program under the new name of Rosaviakosmos.) U.S. shuttles docked with the Russian space station Mir for joint scientific missions of astronauts and cosmonauts. A decade before, NASA had worked with its Soviet counterpart to develop mutual docking mechanisms on U.S. and Soviet spacecraft.

In October 1998 NASA achieved a public relations boost when Senator John Glenn flew into space aboard the shuttle Discovery. The seventy-seven-year-old Glenn was already a hero for his participation in the Mercury program of the early 1960s. In 1962 Glenn had been the third American in space and the first to complete an Earth orbit during a five-hour trip aboard Friendship 7. In 1998 his spaceflight lasted nine days. He became the oldest person ever to travel into space. NASA scientists conducted extensive medical tests before, during, and after his flight to monitor his well-being. They were particularly eager to learn about the effects of weightlessness on an older person. Prolonged weightlessness in space is known to weaken human bones, a condition also seen on Earth in older people suffering from osteoporosis.

NASA's shuttle program continued into the twenty-first century, and was again touched by tragedy when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on February 1, 2003, during reentry over the western United States. Seven crewmembers were killed. Investigators found that a piece of foam had fallen off the shuttle's external fuel tank during lift-off and smashed into Columbia's wing. The resulting damage allowed super-hot gases to enter the shuttle during reentry and tore it apart.

This second shuttle tragedy shook NASA to the core. The agency had made many promises to Congress and the American public about better shuttle safety and reliability following the 1986 disaster. NASA's capability to operate a manned space program again came under attack. A government investigation blamed NASA for continuing to perpetuate the can-do culture in the face of serious operational and budget problems within the shuttle program. The shuttle fleet was grounded for more than two years.

In July 2005 a shuttle successfully carried out the first of two planned "return-to-flight" missions. Although the shuttle returned safely to Earth, video images revealed that foam had again shed from the external tank during lift-off. Luckily, it fell harmlessly to the ground and did not damage shuttle components. NASA and the public faced the sobering realization that fixing the shuttle's safety problems had proved to be an elusive goal. The second return-to-flight was postponed indefinitely.

Part 1 Space Organizations: NASA - The International Space Station [next] [back] Part 1 Space Organizations: NASA - Nasa's First Space Station

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