For my final suggestion for the Seven Wonders of Space Exploration, I picked the Space Shuttle. But, all of my other entries were specific craft or missions, so I decided to make my Space Shuttle entry about STS-1, the first Space Shuttle flight.
STS-1 was the first time that a reusable space vehicle was launched into space. At 7:00 am local time on April 12, 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center with John Young and Robert Crippen, marking the fist fully operational flight of America’s Space Shuttle program. Columbia landed 2.25 days later on Runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base in California (home to NASA’s Dryden Research Center). Runway 23 is unpaved and painted onto the surface of Rogers Lake, a dry lake bed at Edwards.
Edwards was selected as the landing site for STS-1 because it’s dry Roger’s Lake bed is very smooth and flat and can be used as extremely long runways. This has made Edwards a perfect place to test experimental aircraft. The Space Shuttle is unpowered as it lands — essentially a glider, and not a very good one at that. The astronauts practiced landing extensively, but for safety’s sake, Edwards is a good choice because the lake bed extends far beyond the runway. That way if the landing was too far down the runway, then it would not be critical if Columbia overran the end of the marked runway. Also, if the shuttle did not manage to line up just right and did not land directly on the marked runway, it could still get down safely. As it happened, though, Columbia made a flawless landing and rolled to a stop right right where two marked landing paths on the dry lake bed crossed. It made for an impressive picture, with the Space Shuttle sitting right in the middle of the X. The only problem with landing at Edwards is that the Space Shuttle has to be carried piggy-back on an 747 back to Kennedy Space Center afterwards. This is expensive, and after NASA got comfortable with landing the Space Shuttle, later landings were at the Kennedy Space Center if the weather cooperated.
The Space Shuttle program is officially the Space Transportation System (that’s what the STS stands for). Even before Apollo ended, NASA was looking to the future, with a plan to build orbiting space stations. To supply those space stations would require a large number of space flights, and perhaps some sort of cargo vessel. NASA also was envisioning a fleet of spacecraft that would deploy and service satellites. All spacecraft up to that point had been single use vehicles. Each one was expensive to build and expensive to launch. It seemed reasonable that a reusable spacecraft would be less expensive. After all, it is far less expensive for an airline to buy an airplane and to have it fly thousands of trips rather than to buy thousands of aircraft each flying only one trip. So, NASA began to consider the idea of reusable spacecraft to serve as support for the space station. However, budget constraints began to scale back the plans. The space station fell by the wayside. The reusable spacecraft evolved into a partially reusable spacecraft that became the Space Shuttle.
Initial designs for a space shuttle called for most of the vehicle to be reusable. Finally, it was determined that the external fuel tank was the least expensive part to make and the most difficult and expensive to try to reuse, so it was discarded. The solid rocket boosters were to be reused many times before they wore out, but the first few flights saw them getting far rougher wear than had been predicted. The number of flights was cut, and then cut again after the Challenger accident. The only part to be completely reusable for a long time was the orbiter itself, and even that turned out to need a major refit after each mission (again something that came of the Challenger accident).
The Space Shuttle program never met the initial (overly) optimistic dreams of an inexpensive launch system. In the early days, there was talk that perhaps the Shuttle fleet could pay for itself by contracting out launches. But, to be cost effective, and to cost less than unmanned expendable launch vehicles, the shuttles would have had to launched at least once per week. The most flights ever in one year turned to be 9 flights in 1985. As it turns out, the Space Shuttle is actually a more expensive way to launch a satellite than to use expendable launch systems. The STS was also billed as being vastly safer than prior launch systems. It was considered safe enough by NASA administrators to allow a congressman to fly into space, and to try to send a teacher into space. However, the loss of the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003 shows that the Space Shuttle really isn’t as safe as it is billed to be. There is a nearly 2% failure rate. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is far higher than NASA would like for a manned space program. But, the astronauts who fly into space know and accept the risks. Space flight is dangerous, as is the case for many forms of extreme exploration (deep sea diving, mountain climbing, Arctic exploration, etc).
But, the Space Shuttle program is a major milestone in space exploration, and so I give it a spot in my list of space exploration wonders with a tribute to STS-1, the first Space Shuttle flight to make it to orbit. There were earlier atmospheric flights with the Enterprise, but it was never really meant to be flown into space. STS-1 was the first real full blown mission.