September 17, 1976 was an epic day in American history, and truly in world history as well. This was the day that the seemingly impossible became possible. Man had been in space many times by that date, but the crafts taken were disposable, and the cost to build new ones was great. It would be an amazing thing to have a craft that could take man into space, and then make a smooth landing back on Earth. It was unheard of, but it was no longer impossible.
On this day in 1976, NASA publicly unveiled its first space shuttle. The shuttle was called Enterprise, and during a ceremony in Palmdale, California, the world got its first glimpse of the future. The Space Shuttle looked like an airplane. Its development cost almost $10 billion and took nearly a decade. The shuttle would not actually fly until 1977. Enterprise became the first space shuttle to fly freely when it was lifted to a height of 25,000 feet by a Boeing 747 airplane and then released, gliding back to Edwards Air Force Base on its own accord. It was a phenomenal accomplishment. What an exciting event in NASA history!!
With the success of the first flight, came regular flights of the space shuttle, which began on April 12, 1981, with the launching of Columbia from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The shuttle had to be able to get into space, and so it was launched by two solid-rocket boosters and an external tank. These were ejected prior to the actual entrance into space, and only the shuttle, which looked like an actual airplane, entered into orbit around Earth. When the two-day mission was completed, the shuttle fired its engines to reduce speed and, after descending through the atmosphere, landed like a glider at California’s Air Force Base…brought to a stop with the help of three parachutes.
Early shuttles took satellite equipment into space and carried out various scientific experiments. On January 28, 1986, NASA and the space shuttle program suffered a major setback when the Challenger exploded 74 seconds after takeoff and all seven people aboard were killed. That was a horrible day in shuttle history. After changing the things that caused the problem, the shuttle flew again beginning in September 1988, when Discovery went up successfully. Since then, the space shuttle has carried out numerous important missions, such as the repair and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction and manning of the International Space Station. A tragedy in space again rocked the nation on February 1, 2003, when Columbia, on its 28th mission, disintegrated during re-entry of the earth’s atmosphere. All seven astronauts aboard were killed. In the aftermath, the space-shuttle program was grounded until Discovery returned to space in July 2005, amid concerns that the problems that had downed Columbia had not yet been fully solved. On July 21, 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the final time, at the end of STS-135, with the official retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet taking place from March to July 2011.
After a horrific accident such as Space Shuttle Challenger’s explosion 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986, taking with it seven astronauts, it is only prudent for NASA to have stopped all future flights until they knew the cause and had a fix in place. The Space Shuttle program was really NASA’s greatest achievement, and Challenger was its second shuttle into space. Challenger had a great record, having been sent into space nine times…before disaster struck on the tenth trip.
The Space Shuttle Challenger was first intended to be a test vehicle, Construction began in November of 1975. It was sent for testing on April 2, 1978, and after eleven months of vibration testing they decided to make it an actual vehicle. The first shuttle to be built into an actual workable unit was the Columbia, which ended up breaking up on February 1, 2003, to become the second time NASA lost lives in flight.
After Challenger blew up shortly after liftoff, NASA had to see what went wrong, and the space program was on hold for two years and eight months. Finally, after it was determined that an O-Ring failed due to weather that was too cold, a different NASA emerged. No longer would there be a rush to launch. Conditions would be right, or the launch would be scrubbed. It had to be that way. And yet we, as a nation, knew that America belonged in space. This was more that just a whim, but was rather an important contribution in many areas. The scientists who went into space performed experiments that led to many things we use today. Not to mention all of the information we have learned about our own little part of the universe. It was time to put America back in space.
So, on this day, September 29, 1988, NASA launched STS-26. It was the return to flight mission, and it was a success. The mission lasted four days, one hour, and eleven seconds, and traveled 1,680,000 miles, making 64 orbits around the Earth. The Shuttle that made the return to flight mission was the Discovery. On board were Frederick H Hauck, Richard O Covey, John M Lounge, Davis C Hilmers, and George D Nelson. I’m sure there were moments of anxiety, especially at the moment when the command to Go with Throttle Up, the very command that led to the explosion of the Challenger, was given. Nevertheless, these men went, and made it through that anxious moment, to have a successful mission. It was the first mission since STS-9 to use the original STS numbering system, the first to have all its crew members wear pressure suits for launch and landing since STS-4, and the first mission with bailout capacity since STS-4. STS-26 was also the first all-veteran crew mission since Apollo 11, with all of its crew members having flown at least one prior mission. I’m sure there were specific reason for each of those things, but my guess is that it was mainly to have all the best possible precautions in place.
Besides conducting the mission’s various experiments, crew members practiced suiting up in new partial-pressure “launch-and-entry” flight suits, and also practiced the unstowing and attaching of the new crew escape system. On 2 October, the day before the mission ended, the five man crew paid tribute to the seven crew members lost in the Challenger disaster. Discovery landed on Runway 17 at Edwards Air Force Base, California, at 12:37 pm EDT on 3 October 1988, after a mission duration of four days, one hour and eleven seconds. Capsule Communicator Blaine Hammond Jr welcomed the crew, saying it was “a great ending to a new beginning.”