A new chapter in U.S. Space exploration - The Shuttle program
The shuttle is a new chapter in American space exploration. It is the first reusable space vehicle, and the first with wings. It launches like a rocket but lands like a plane - only it lands with no power and can only glide. You only have one chance to land it, so there is no fly over or 2nd approach. It has been compared to flying/landing a brick. But it is designed to be re-used and to make space flight routine, safe and reliable. The first public view is 2/18/77 when they test land a shuttle for the first time. It is piggy-backed and flown on top of a specially outfitted 747. Once it reaches the correct altitude, it is jettisoned off the jet and allowed to glide on its own. It then successfully lands without a glitch.
The shuttle is designed for a crew of 7, but on its inaugural flight, only 2 are chosen: Bob Crippen and John Young (Apollo 16). It is the first time a prototype space vehicle will be manned on its first flight
which is a huge risk. But there is no way to accomplish it unmanned.
It launches 4/12/81 and is the first time in 6 years an astronaut is back in space. It is a perfect mission. The next segment discusses the invention of the jet back pack - like something out of Buck Rogers. It allows a man to fly in space untethered to the spaceship. It uses bursts of nitrogen gas. Bruce McCandless is the first to use it in space.
But the shuttle program becomes a victim of its own success. They have flown so often without incident, they become arrogant and take for granted that they can do no wrong. This meets tragic results on 1/28/86 when the Challenger explodes during takeoff, 73 seconds into flight. It is determined that the extreme cold temperatures on launch day caused a failure in an o-ring that caused the fuel rockets to explode. Presidents Reagan's speech is moving as he says " they slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God." This is the first time NASA loses astronauts during an actual mission. It is determined the accident was a result of gross negligence and the country's grief turns to anger.
It is 2 1/12 years before a shuttle flies again in September 1988 and resumes a regular schedule. Discovery launches the Hubble telescope which will search for origins of the universe. It will enable us to see galaxies and starts being born. It will be the most powerful telescope ever built and is the size of a city bus at a cost of $1.5 billion. The shuttle will have to fly twice its usual altitude in order to release the telescope beyond the earth's reflective light so the telescope can see into deep space. There is an initial problem getting the solar panels to expand on the Hubble but it is eventually resolved. Had it not been fixed, the telescope would lose all power and be useless. The joy is short-lived When they first begin to receive photo transmissions back from Hubble, they discover another glitch. The pictures are not clearly focused and it is determined that the optical mirrors were ground to incorrect specifications - the Hubble is near-sighted. It becomes a national joke. The most expensive telescope in history is a dud.
This episode highlights the height of NASA's success as well as the lowest point of failure when Challenger explodes. I think it gives a very balanced and unbiased view of the the nation's space program. I found the program very interesting because I remember all the early publicity the Shuttle program received as a teenager in Junior Highschool. It is what first got me interested in NASA and I have been somewhat of a junkie ever since. It was great to see those early news footages that I remember from back then.
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