I remember this day two years ago better than I do the World Trade Center Disasters. I was driving to Camp, where I was going to be doing some volunteer work after the place was vandalized. I was in Burlington and heard that the shuttle was overdue for landing. I thought Oh Shit, because I knew that these things just don’t happen, and shuttles aren’t 15-20 minutes late while going down. I called my mom, and listened to the radio for the next couple hours, and it turned out that the shuttle had been destroyed while re-entering the atmosphere. I can’t believe that it’s been two years. I remember that people were asking if any of the crew could have escaped, if it was terrorism or something like that. It was a very sad day, and in the long run, I think more damaging to our future than the WTC disasters. At the time and review period, there was a lot of talk from politicians to shut down NASA and the Space Program. I hope that never happens.

The Crew of Columbia- Mission Patch

A bit about the shuttle program, from Encarta:

Space Shuttle, spacecraft designed for transporting humans and cargo to and from orbit around Earth. The United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed the shuttle in the 1970s to serve as a reusable rocket and spacecraft. This objective differed significantly from that of previous space programs in which the launch and space vehicles could be used only once. After ten years of preparation, the first space shuttle, Columbia, was launched on April 12, 1981. Today NASA has three space shuttles: Discovery, acquired in 1983; Atlantis, which arrived in 1985; and Endeavour, which joined the fleet in 1991. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) started a shuttle program in 1988 with the Buran space shuttle, but the program was halted in 1993.

The space shuttle was initially used to deploy satellites in orbit; to carry scientific experiments such as Spacelab, a modular arrangement of experiments installed in the shuttle’s cargo bay; and to carry out military missions. As the program has matured, the space shuttle also has been used to service and repair orbiting satellites and to retrieve and return to the earth previously deployed spacecraft.

In its first five years, the earliest space-shuttle missions made significant contributions, beginning with the first orbital flight tests of the Columbia orbiter in April 1981; the first launch of the second orbiter (Challenger) in April 1983; the first flight of Spacelab, with 71 scientific experiments from the United States and European countries, in November 1983; the first repair of a satellite in orbit (the Solar Maximum Satellite) in April 1984; the first retrieval of satellites from orbit (Palapa and Westar) and their return to the Earth in November 1984; and the first manually assisted launch of a satellite (Syncon IV-3) from space, after retrieval and repair in orbit of the satellite Leasat in August 1985. The shuttle program was suspended for nearly three years for evaluation and modification following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986.

On January 28, 1986, Challenger and its crew were destroyed shortly after launch. The failure of an O-ring seal of a joint on one of the SRBs was the primary cause of the Challenger loss. SRBs are constructed in four cylindrical sections that must be sealed together completely to prevent the escape of the intensely hot by-products of the burning fuel during launch. O-rings are rubber rings that play a crucial part in ensuring the seal. The cold weather on the launch day made the rubber of an O-ring on the joint between the bottom two segments of the right SRB brittle, which, combined with the faulty design of the joint, allowed hot gases from the burning solid rocket fuel to escape. The gases and flames burned through the metal holding the rocket in position. When the rocket broke loose, it ruptured the side of the external fuel tank, allowing the liquid hydrogen and oxygen to mix prematurely and explode.

In early February 1986, as the nation mourned the tragic loss of the seven Challenger crew members, U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced the creation of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Chaired by William P. Rogers, former secretary of state, it became known as the Rogers Commission. NASA’s Challenger Data and Design Analysis Task Force also was established at this time to support the work of the Rogers Commission.

After the Challenger accident in 1986, more than 80 shuttle missions were completed with no serious mishaps. The most notable of these were the scientific missions that launched these exploratory spacecraft: Magellan (launched May 1989), the probe designed for radar mapping of the planet Venus; Galileo (launched October 1989), the unmanned spacecraft that reached Jupiter in December 1995; Ulysses (launched October 1990), a probe designed for study of the Sun; and the Hubble Space Telescope (launched April 1990), a high-powered telescope designed to make astronomical observations from space, away from the interference of Earth’s atmosphere. In December 1993 the first Hubble Telescope Servicing Mission was successfully completed, correcting the telescope’s optics and improving the electronic systems.

In July 1995 the shuttle Atlantis linked up with the Russian space station Mir. This mission was the first of nine shuttle/Mir linkups between 1995 and 1998. These flights were the precursors to assembly of the International Space Station that began to be constructed in orbit in late 1998. The first docking with Mir was perhaps the most significant event in the history of spaceflight since the symbolic joining of Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft 20 years earlier (see Apollo program). It signaled a new age of cooperation in space, where exploration of the universe would be measured more in terms o
f what a coalition of nations had accomplished rather than what a single nation had achieved. See also
Space Station.

After the ceremonies following the rendezvous and docking of Atlantis to Mir, the two groups of astronauts undertook several days of joint scientific investigations inside the Spacelab module tucked in Atlantis’s large cargo bay. Research in seven different medical and scientific disciplines, begun previously at Mir, also were concluded on the July 1995 mission. All of these experiments took advantage of the unique microgravity environment present on the spacecraft. Scientists hope to learn more about changes in the human body caused by spaceflight; the data collected in these experiments also may advance understanding of conditions such as anemia, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, kidney stones, balance disorders, and immune deficiencies that often occur on Earth.

In March 1996 Atlantis docked again with Mir, carrying 860 kg (1,900 lb) of supplies to the space station. Atlantis also left Shannon Lucid, an American astronaut, on Mir for a planned stay of five months. Because of delays caused by problems with Atlantis, Lucid stayed aboard Mir for 188 days (more than 6 months), breaking the U.S. record for long duration spaceflight. Five more U.S. astronauts stayed aboard Mir on extended stays before shuttle/Mir missions ended in 1998, when both the United States and Russia began concentrating on International Space Station plans. Spacelab missions also ended in 1998, in hopes that the ISS will provide a new and more permanent laboratory in space.

The majority of space shuttle missions in the early 2000s were devoted to construction of the ISS. In 1998 the orbiter Atlantis was overhauled to make it more compatible with the ISS. Atlantis received new displays, navigation equipment, and an airlock with which to connect to the station. Its power and cooling systems were also improved.

In February 2000 Endeavour completed a mission that focused on mapping Earth’s terrain. Scientists used two antennas—one located at the end of a long mast and the other in the shuttle’s payload bay—to obtain high-quality, three-dimensional images that give information about topography (features such as mountains and rivers).

The space shuttle Columbia broke apart and burned up while reentering Earth’s atmosphere over Texas on February 1, 2003. The entire seven-member crew was killed as they returned to Earth after completing a series of scientific experiments. Investigation of the disaster pointed to structural failure of the shuttle’s left wing. Sensors inside the wing recorded unusually high temperatures just before NASA lost contact with the shuttle. The wing may have been damaged during liftoff when it was struck by a piece of insulation from the external fuel tank. Such falling debris is common during launches, however, and NASA engineers felt the incident posed no danger. The space shuttle fleet has been grounded indefinitely while the investigation proceeds and until preventive measures can be taken to insure that no similar accident can occur again.

In the wake of the Columbia disaster the future of the shuttle fleet is in some doubt, but the shuttles will likely be pressed into service again due to a lack of alternatives. Shuttles are necessary for the completion of the ISS. After the station is completed—scheduled for 2006 but likely to be delayed by Columbia’s destruction—shuttles are slated to travel to the new space station to exchange crews, to deliver new experiments, and to return completed experiments and used materials to Earth. In addition to their ISS duties, space shuttles will likely continue to service the Hubble telescope, deploy other scientific satellites, and, when necessary, retrieve previously deployed satellites.

NASA plans to retire the space shuttle during the 2010s. The agency is developing several shuttle-related vehicles as forerunners to a shuttle replacement or as possible replacements for the shuttle. One possibility is a space plane that could act as an emergency rescue vehicle.

More advanced shuttle replacement candidates will be single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicles with one rocket engine that can send the craft from Earth into orbit, unlike the shuttle, which has multiple stages. SSTO vehicles will also have more reusable parts than the space shuttle does. In 1999 a small-scale test vehicle called the X-33 underwent its first atmospheric tests.