It was 2011 when NASA launched the last space shuttle, the Atlantis, into space, effectively ending the Space Shuttle Program the same year. After many years of no newly-built space shuttle in the areas owned by NASA, it is safe to say that the program is gone for good. Nonetheless, the organization is currently able to build dozens of spacecraft that are cheaper to build and safer to pilot thanks to the help of private space companies who share the same dream with NASA of reaching places beyond Earth.
The cancellation of the space shuttle program was due to many reasons, one of which being the failure and subsequent crash of two space shuttles, namely the Challenger and Columbia, that killed more than ten crew members. The space shuttle has a very tumultuous history, and it is full of ups and downs that were determined by the lack of funding as well as the limited resources to build a sturdy spacecraft. To know more about its history, let’s take a look at the timeline between the periods when the space shuttle was first conceptualized up to the final space shuttle that went to space.
The idea for the space shuttle came to be during the 1930s when the Nazi regime ordered researchers and engineers to build an aircraft that can fly from Germany all the way to New York and bomb the city. The project was called the “Amerika Bomber,” and one of the engineers who worked on the project and submitted concepts for the aircraft was a man named Eugen Sanger. The engineer was able to conceptualize it properly with the help of Irene Bredt, who is a mathematician. Sanger called his concept the Silbervogel (silver bird in English), which is a rocket that has wings for better maneuverability.
The concept suggests that the Silbervogel will be able to fly long distances because of how it is able to go up in space and down towards the stratosphere, and these movements will be repeated over and over in order for the aircraft to gain momentum to fly further.
However, the Silbervogel was not built during World War II, as the Nazis began focusing on conquering nearby countries first using land vehicles, sea vessels, and faster aircraft.
After the Second World War, Sanger’s concept for the Silbervogel was discovered by the United States when they hired several German scientists, some of which are known members of the Nazi Party, to participate in a secret program called Operation Paperclip.
The scientific accomplishments that were achieved during Operation Paperclip included the swept wing, a kind of aircraft wing that enables planes to fly faster, and the Saturn V, a launch vehicle that was heavily used during the United States’ mission of landing on the moon.
The First Space Planes
Before the creation of the Saturn V, there were already plenty of space planes that were conceptualized from 1958, which was the year that NASA was founded, up to 1963. One of the most notable spacecraft that was built was the X-15, a rocket plane that currently holds the record for the fastest human-crewed rocket aircraft.
NASA was supposed to follow up the X-15 with an improved spacecraft called the X-20 or the Dyna-Soar, but the development for the said plane was canceled in 1963 for NASA and the United States government to focus on the Space Race.
During the 1960s, the race to get to the moon was going on between the United States and the Soviet Union, and this event was called the Space Race.
Before the Space Race happened, the Soviet Union was already ahead to the United States in terms of successfully launching an aircraft into space, as they were able to launch the first artificial satellite called Sputnik in 1957, and they were also able to send the first human in space in 1961.
The Soviet Union’s achievements prompted the United States to abandon its initial idea of planning to build cheaper spacecraft and space stations in order to focus their budget on creating a space rocket that can be made as quickly as possible. The United States’ unwillingness to bow down to the Soviet Union in the Space Race led to the creation of the Saturn V vehicle.
The Space Race hindered the development of space shuttles, as NASA was clearly utilizing all of its resources to build a space rocket that is considered primitive in technology compared to a shuttle. However, the research for the space shuttle was reinitiated after the success of the Apollo program, which enabled the United States to finish the race first before the Soviets on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the surface of the moon.
The Space Shuttle Program
After the Space Race, President Richard Nixon has created a space task group in NASA in order for the organization to quickly shift their focus on other concepts for space exploration. The group suggested that they should return to the idea of creating space shuttles and stations in order to expand the reach of NASA in space further, as the creation of the space station is an excellent way for them to easily reach not only the moon but also the planet Mars.
Furthermore, the task group was able to devise a system called the STS (Space Transportation System) that requires the use of both the space shuttle and the space station to maneuver around the orbit and the moon quickly. In addition, the shuttles that will be used for the system are reusable, and they are relatively cheaper to build and to utilize compared to rockets that usually have expendable parts that can be expensive to replace.
But Nixon did not like the system at all, as he believes that building it would require the government to give NASA more funding. It is important to note that Nixon lowered the budget of NASA to $4.25 billion, which was only 2.3% of the entire federal budget, and he did not want to raise the agency’s budget again for the sake of building the STS.
On the other hand, Nixon did like the idea of building a reusable space shuttle, so he recommended that NASA should only focus on that aspect of the system instead of making it alongside a space station.
The focus on launching space shuttles into orbit resulted in the founding of the Space Shuttle Program on January 5, 1972, but they were unable to launch a shuttle into space until 1981 due to the lack of funding to complete the construction of the shuttles.
In 1976, NASA was able to create the first space shuttle, the Enterprise, which is named after the iconic ship in the Star Trek TV series. The Enterprise was only able to perform glide flight the year after its construction, and it was never launched into space as it could be considered dangerous for the pilot. However, they were able to refine and improve the mechanics and parts of the Enterprise to make four space shuttles, which are Columbia, Discovery, Challenger, and Atlantis.
The first shuttle that was successfully sent into space was Columbia in 1981, and it was followed by the other space shuttles in the years after.
The First and Second Space Shuttle Disasters
The streak of successful shuttle launch by NASA will end in 1986 when the Challenger exploded unexpectedly during flight, which killed all the crew members inside the space shuttle. The Space Shuttle Program was then suspended for a few years, and investigations began as to why the shuttle exploded. The destroyed Challenger will soon be replaced with a new shuttle called the Endeavour.
The second space shuttle disaster happened in 2003 when the Columbia spacecraft was supposed to land safely on Earth after a successful mission of launching into space. It was reported that the space shuttle had some problems with its left wing, which resulted in an unsteady flight towards the stratosphere that led to the explosion of the entire shuttle. After investigation, it was discovered that a tiny part of the launcher came off during Columbia’s flight towards space hit an area in the shuttle’s left wing, and the damage went unnoticed and was not remedied before the shuttle’s descent to Earth.
Despite the disasters, the Space Shuttle Program did not stop until 2011, when the Atlantis shuttle and its crew members performed its 33rd and final mission. It is quite ironic that the last shuttle in space was named after Atlantis, a fictional island that is believed to have been buried or submerged into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean and was never seen again. Like the lost island, we may never see a shuttle in space again during our lifetime.