On January 28th, 1986, NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger broke apart and detonated only 73 seconds into its 10th flight. Approximately 17% of the American population witnessed the explosion on live TV; this was due to one of the crew, Christa McAuliffe, being the first teacher sent on a mission into space. The disaster led to a 32-month hiatus of the STS (Space Transportation System) and the creation of the Rogers Commission, a body designed to investigate the cause of the disaster. With the technical issue determined as being a fault in the O-Ring created by cold weather, and the secondary cause being blamed on a lack of communication within NASA itself, the Space Shuttle Program continued with a number of successful missions over the next decade, unfortunately, on the 1 of February 2003, another disaster occurred, this time permanently damaging the reputation of the STS. Space Shuttle Columbia had been entering the atmosphere from its 28th flight, on a routine mission to the International Space Station; previous damage from the flight up into space allowed hot gases to enter the internal structure of the left wing on the way back down, resulting in the shuttle breaking up on re-entry, killing all crew members.
Due to only five shuttles ever being operated, the program ended with a vehicular failure rate of 40% and a flight failure rate of 1.5%, the worst track record of crew survivability of any space vehicle program ever produced. Regardless of shaky reliability, the distinctive look of the shuttle quickly became an American icon in a time when the country needed uplifting; a series of economic collapses throughout the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s had severely damaged the American dream and created an unhappy and disgruntled populace, however; with the help of sources of nationalistic pride such as the Space Shuttle, the country always had a way of getting back on its feet.
While Space Shuttles never had the range for them to reach the moon, it did have the ability to reach both the ISS as well as the Hubble Telescope. Over the course of the Shuttle’s 30-year history, the crafts individually covered (excluding Challenger) a distance greater than that of the Earth to the Sun; this means that the total travel distance of the Shuttles is somewhere in the region of 514 million miles, or 1.3 times the distance from the Earth to Jupiter. On top of the distance achieved by the Space Shuttle Program, the speed at which the shuttles accomplished this is also quite significant; even though the shuttles weighed around 80 tonnes, the machines were capable of a speed maxing out at around seventeen and half thousand miles per hour while in orbit, or enough to witness a sunset or sunrise every 45 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, the materials used in the construction of the shuttles, as well as the technology used within them, improved over time, however; some of the parts used during the development of the crafts were outsourced by smaller companies; the result of this was some of these companies going bankrupt during one of the aforementioned financial collapses, requiring NASA to buy-out those assets of the company (often at great expense). If this wasn’t bad enough, some of the companies used to outsource the parts often ended up structuring their entire business models around the production of those parts; this led to rising costs due to these companies only selling to the government, requiring said government to subsidise the maintenance of these private assembly lines.
The reason why the Space Shuttle Program is featured in this article is because of the iconic design used by the crafts; the overall aesthetic of the ships didn’t change of 30 years (besides the fuel tank changing colour from white to orange), and this led to the design becoming a true icon of aerospace engineering from the 20th century. Unfortunately, the Space Shuttle program was formally retired in August 2011 with 30 years active service to the North American Space Agency, this means it is highly unlikely a space shuttle will ever fly again, mainly due to the work and money involved in such an endeavour (no pun intended). One can still visit any of the remaining space shuttles in their respective homes of New York, Virginia, Florida, and California, however; none are, nor will be, operational. The legacy of the Space Shuttle Program will not be forgotten, and multiple companies are now competing to fill the immense void left behind in the shuttle’s wake; SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Boeing, and Orbital Sciences are all working (at varying stages) to create a new astronaut transportation system for ferrying between Earth and the ISS (as well as any future orbiting space stations). NASA’s successor to the program, Orion, had its first unmanned launch into orbit in 2014, and while the launch was a success, no manned flight of the craft is planned until August 2021, 10 years and 1 month after the final flight of the STS-51-J “Atlantis”, on its 135th flight. Arguably the most promising of the private ventures is SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle, and its sibling, the Dragon 2 spacecraft; the Falcon 9 already has a history of generally strong reliability (though it has had a couple of high-profile prototype failures) as well as 26 successful missions over the past 6 years. In 2014, a Falcon 9 rocket made a 1000 metre high altitude test in which the rocket made its way back down to Earth in a perfectly executed VTVL (vertical takeoff, vertical landing); in other words, the rocket launched up to 1 km into the air, hovered, and then came back down to land on the base of the rocket, just as it went up. Even more impressive is how SpaceX was able to position a hexacopter drone camera in exactly the right spot to capture this footage:
While this may not appear to be significant, the positioning of the camera suggests that SpaceX knew exactly where the Falcon 9 rocket would be at all times, hence why they were able to capture this footage; this would have required extreme preparations and calculations to achieve.
The reason why the SpaceX twins appear to be more promising than their counterparts from NASA and Boeing is because one of the two, Falcon 9, has already been used in multiple missions, while the other, Dragon 2, is going to be tested on a full mission to the ISS, next year on the 18th of May, months before Boeing’s launch in August, and years before NASA’s alternative flys with a crew, as mentioned before, in 2021.
With a social, cultural, and technological legacy as impressive as that of the Space Shuttle Program, it may take some time, and some work, to fill its gigantic shoes; but thankfully, it does seem like there are some people up to this task.