During the late 1970’s NASA were busy developing their Space Transportation System project, better known to you and me as the Space Shuttle. Â This fascinated me, and I loved watching pictures of it on the news as the project went through development. Â First their were pictures of the Shuttle Enterprise piggybacked to a jumbo jet, which led to it eventually being decoupled and attempting a landing, first in a lake and eventually on a proper runway.
The idea of the project was to make space travel more cost effective by constructing a space craft that was capable of being reused. Â Much was made of the special heat resistant tiles that had been developed and covered the body of the Shuttle, allowing it to withstand the great amounts of heat generated during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
It wasn’t until 1981 that the Space Shuttle finally made its maiden voyage into space, as mission STS-1 aboard the Columbia Shuttle took off from Kennedy Space Centre at 7am EST on April 12th. Â The original launch date had been planned to be two days earlier, but technical problems prevented this.
I still remember the excitement of this event at our school, as the teachers wheeled the school television into the assembly hall and we were all allowed to sit and watch the launch. Â Some of the kids in the room may have found things a bit dull initially, as there’s only so long you can look at the same picture of a Shuttle attached to its booster rockets sat on the launch pad, but when the time came for the launch every kid in the room sat watching in silence as the Shuttle took off amid a huge plume of smoke and fire. Â We watched whilst the booster rockets came away and then the Shuttle became little more than a speck in the sky, and we sadly had to return to our normal lessons.
Columbia orbited the Earth 37 times travelling more than a million miles in just over two days. Â It touched down again on April 14th on Runway 23 at Edwards Airforce Base in California, and despite a few teething problems with the heat tiles the mission was a success. Â There have been six Shuttles built in all. Â Enterprise, the prototype, never went into space, but it was followed by Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour which between them have flown more than 100 missions.
Sadly, the Shuttle programme has been marred by two big disasters, with Challenger disintegrating shortly after launch in 1986, and Columbia being destroyed during re-entry in 2003. Â The Space Shuttles will be going the way of Concorde soon though as they are scheduled to be grounded in 2010. Â This date may be extended though as the new space craft programme, Orion, will not be completed in time to take over from the Shuttles.