NASA’s final Shuttle flight is due this week, in this article Colin Johnston reveals what this historic space project has meant to him.
(This article is a sequel to Apollo and me which appeared in the July 2009 issue of Astronotes. It’s another indulgent wallow in shameless nostalgia so if that’s not your cup of tea then there is better stuff elsewhere, say here or here.)
To set the scene, in the early 1970s I was a space-mad kid.Rockets, Mr Spock, flying saucers, other planets, Lunar Modules, I just couldn’t get enough of them!Everyone expected me to grow out of it, but a few years later I was worse!By the age of 11 I was doing space virtually every free minute, whether it was reading (Patrick Moore books, Dr Who novelisations, Look and Learn, Hugh Walters novels), drawing space scenes or mentally composing sprawling science fiction epics. I was keenly aware that there wasn’t much happening up there at that time. Sure the Vikings had landed on Mars (and not found the moss and lichens promised by the 1960s books in the school library), there had been the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project a year or so before (and the USSR was still busy beavering away in secret) but there no NASA manned missions and I had been too young to fully appreciate the Moon landings. So I was eagerly awaiting the coming of the Space Shuttle.
The books and magazines promised an approaching era when gleaming sleek and silver spaceships (not agricultural-looking capsules or modules) would be launching daily carrying astronauts into space to build majestic rotating space stations and mighty nuclear-powered ships to sail the inky void to Mars.The future was going to be awesome!
In February 1977 the BBC officially announced that the future was about to start.On a normal evening news bulletin the grey and beige reportage of strikes at British Leyland, economic crises and Jimmy Carter parted briefly to let in a glorious blaze of Californian sunlight.The first Space Shuttle (“What?”), Enterprise (“Great name!”) had flown (Gasp!) on the back of a Boeing 747 but would be launched into space perhaps next year.I was stunned.I was going to see the conquest of space happen!
That summer I browbeat my parents into taking me on a pilgrimage to Armagh Planetarium and came face to face with the Shuttle.Well sort of.There in the Lindsay Hall of Astronomy was a glorious large scale model of this avatar of progress, its cargo bay door proudly spread open to display Europe’s Spacelab complete with tiny Euronaut busily Doing Science inside.This was my first good look at NASA’s Shuttle and I memorised its shape and colour scheme.I used my recollections and the card glider I purchased to churn out a squillion felt tip depictions of dramatic space rescues.
In those days there was a shop in the now long burned to the ground Clandeboye Shopping Centre in Bangor which sold an odd mixture of sports and outdoor activity gear and plastic model kits (guess which subset of their stock appealed to me). One day a huge box appeared there among the tents and football boots containing a 1/144 model kit of the Enterprise and 747 combination. It was the One Ring to my Gollum and I had to have it. Such a mighty model came with a mighty price (£4.95) so I could do little but stare in envious wonder. A little later, my Mum and Dad treated me to it as a gift and I still to this day remember the hours I spent brushing silver paint over the Jumbo’s airframe. Only Michaelangelo when he rinsed the last of the brushes he had used to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel may have shared my feeling of satisfaction of what we had wrought as I finally lowered the completed pair on the display stand.
Building the real thing was much harder and a late 1970s orbital debut of the Shuttle looked increasingly unlikely and the space stations and Mars missions were sliding into the distant future of the 1990s (on the other hand vast space colonies and cheap solar power beamed down from space were certainities for the turn of the century). The limited TV and newspaper reporting of progress with the Shuttle concentrated on tiles falling off and unreliable and potentially explosive main engines. Now a teenager but still space-mad, I fumed at the melancholia of the journalists, did these people not get it? This was the future, when it worked this would be the start of mankind spreading throughout the Universe!
In April 1981, Columbia was ready for launch early on a Friday afternoon.The BBC was going to cover it live on TV but I was at school and would have missed it.However a kindly fate intervened, and we were allowed home early (I can’t remember why, I think we were supposed to follow our team in a football or rugby match or similar trifle) and I got home just in time to see the flight scrubbed!However I was sitting at home on the Sunday afternoon watching with my Dad and brother when the gleaming spaceplane finally rose on twin columns of white-hot fire into the Florida sky.Now I could relax, the reality was turning into one of the Jerry Pournelle or Ben Bova novels I was reading so avidly.Hail Columbia!
A few years later, Shuttle missions were routine, though not so frequent as once predicted.Then came the loss of Challenger which I have written of elsewhere. I saw much of the media coverage of the time as ghoulish and distasteful (“Let’s just see that fireball again in slow motion”) and I lost not only much of my boyhood optimism then but also any desire to watch a Shuttle launch in person lest I see the death of more astronauts happen before me.
After Shuttle flights recommenced it was pretty clear that the project was not the game changer that spaceflight enthusiasts had expected.Launching people and payloads into space is expensive (it’s the way Universe is built) and dangerous.Even assembling a modular spacestation (and not one of those fancy rotating jobs) was slow and difficult (it has taken more than a decade to complete the ISS since the first components were launched, in the 1970s everyone expected that this sort of thing could put together in months). My increasing awareness of the realities of engineering, economics and politics meant that I understood the journalists’ cynicism better.
I am still surprised that nothing, even a reusable capsule like the original concept for the Orion CEV, has yet been built to replace the Shuttle. More surprising still to me is that the last Shuttle to fly is almost identical to Columbia as it flew back in 1981, the flightdeck displays are hugely upgraded, the SSMEs have been tweaked a bit and the SRBs redesigned but that’s more or less it. Obviously smarter people than I foresaw problems with more substantial improvements like replacing the SRBs with more advanced concepts. The Shuttle never even received a jazzier paint scheme.
For thirty years I have avidly followed the Shuttle program, awestruck by the skill, professionalism and dedication of the crews (some of whom I have been privileged to meet) and of all that faceless army of technicians behind them .I never fail to become indignant when some armchair astronaut accuses the engineers behind the Shuttle program of incompetence.Try launching a giant hypersonic glider several times a year yourself then tell us how it should be done!
In 2005 I finally came face to face with the Shuttle.On a holiday in Washington DC we made our way by bus to the Smithsonian Institute’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. There, among the WW2 bombers, Cold War jets and retired airliners was Enterprise, large as life and as gleaming white as when I saw it first on TV all those years before. It was a wonderful sight, perhaps a little too perfect as it had never endured the rigours of a Mach 25 re-entry, but it was there for real.
I am sorry to see the last ever Shuttle flight.Historians will argue about the rights and wrongs of its development for centuries to come, but I think it had to be developed to keep NASA in the crewed spaceflight business even if its most useful lesson has been in how not to do things (also see my less personal history of the project). Finally, remember that model Shuttle in Armagh Planetarium that so impressed me all those years ago, well guess what, now I see it every day!