The End of the Space Shuttle Program and the Arrival of Orion

I am a child of the 60s. I grew up with Captain Kirk and Colonel Hogan as heroes. Everyone I knew had a Saturn V model sitting someplace in their room. If you were really cool, you had a lunar module model. Yes, The History Rat was a nerd and still is. In the past few months, my nerdness has taken on new proportions as I have begun learning about the end of one space program and the beginning of another.

The Space Shuttle Program grew out of a need for a usable reentry vehicle. For over ten years, the Saturn V Rocket had taken Mercury,Gemini, and Apollo astronauts beyond the confines of Earth’s orbit and into the vastness of space. What first began as a competition with the Soviet Union to stop one country from dominating the skies, had by the mid 1970s been tuned out by the American people. They no longer wished to see lunar missions to pick up rocks and plant flags. They no longer wished to see a gray speck of rock some 200,000+ miles away.

NASA, on the other hand, wanted to continue. As early as the mid 1950s, NASA had been experimenting with the X series plane and its most famous pilot, Neil Armstrong. By the mid 1960s, the X series had turned into the HL series or Horizontal Landers. It was in 1969 that Richard Nixon gave the go ahead for the Shuttle Program. It would be another 12 years before the first missions.

Beginning in 1977, the Space Shuttle Program began test flights. The Enterprise, yes, named after that Enterprise, began flying around on the back of 747s to do test approaches and landings in California. The actual first mission was in 1981 when the Columbia entered orbit and returned safely to Earth. Over the next five years, the Discovery, Challenger, Columbia, and Atlantis took off every four or five months.

I remember being a senior in college when I heard the news at lunch. It was one of those flashbulb moments where everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing. I was eating lunch in Petersburg, Illinois with some friends from the grocery store where I worked. I had just rolled in from class at WIU, over an hour away. We sat there stunned watching it over and over and over again.

In the days after the disaster, the US public was in shock. President Reagan, in perhaps one of his finest speeches, summed up what all Americans were feeling.

It would be another two years before another space shuttle left the ground.

From 1988 to 2003, the Space Shuttle Program flew without incident and revolutionized science. In 1990, the Hubble Telescope was launched. After some tinkering by later missions, our conceptions and thoughts about the Universe have changed. I remember taking an Astronomy class in college in 1984 (one of my favorites) and the professor talked about how Hubble was going to revolutionize science, physics, and astronomy. And it did.

The Shuttle program also halped deliver parts for the International Space station. In 2000, the Shuttle hit 100 flights. However, in 2003, disaster struck again when Columbia broke into pieces upon reentry.

In 2010, NASA has scheduled three flights, one for each of the shuttles. Congress has talked of funding more flights until the Orion program is fully operational, but that has not been approved. US astronauts would have to go up with the Russians until Orion is ready.

For its replacement, NASA has chosen the Orion. It looks extremely familiar. See the video…

To me, it looks like a souped up Saturn V and lunar module. But then again, that is its purpose – to return to the moon and eventually Mars. The original plan is to launch in 2015. As to what awaits it, only NASA knows. NASA is calling it the Constellation Program with a return trip to the moon planned in 2019 and a manned mission to Mars by 2030.

Most of me is glad to see the Space Shuttle go. Not that Orion is the answer – far from it. The space shuttle is just too bulky and too 70s-ish. We need a more modern fleet. Ideally, a vehicle that could take off from the ground without the aid of rocket boosters would be perfect. Maybe I have seen too many movies. Maybe Star Trek, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica have permeated my psyche. But then again, maybe the same was said of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells a hundred years ago. Space has always been a place to foster creativity and imagination.

In the coming years, space is getting ready to be visited by more than just Ares Rockets and Orion spacecraft. The commercialization of space is not far behind as companies could begin flying customers to space within the next ten years. As technology grows more and more and the cost of space travel decreases, the worlds Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C.Clarke, and Gene Roddenberry foresaw could become a reality, or space could be something quite different. I wonder if a Starbucks or a McDonalds on the moon is far behind?

Myself – I am still waiting for this to be built.

For Further Reading
NASA Constellation Site
Here is a much more in depth account of the space shuttle and its specifications.


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