Early on the morning of July 16th, 1969, my parents awakened me before sunrise. Our family huddled around our television to witness the Apollo 11 launch broadcast live. With our new color set we no longer viewed the outside world in shades of gray.
The launch took place at 9:32 a.m. EST—6:32 a.m. in the living room of our small home in Southern California.
For so many of my generation, the Apollo 11 mission to the moon was a seminal moment. In the years leading up to the mission, I built every Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo model kit that I could find at the local drugstore. My first attempt was the Gemini space capsule kit made by the Revell Corporation. I remember a sweepstakes held in 1967 by Revell, which promised the lucky winner would get their very own full-sized Gemini capsule.
I wanted that capsule more than anything. The consensus amongst my friends was that it was bunk. I read later that a thirteen-year-old boy from Oregon won the sweepstakes, and the capsule now resides in a Portland museum.
I built the Mercury Atlas. I built the Revell model of Ed White spacewalking. During the nine-day Apollo 11 mission, I built the Apollo capsule and service module, complete with the lunar module and a lunar surface diorama.
With many historical events, the people who live through them seem to have a sense of clarity about their place in time at that moment the event occurred. I remember the launch as though it were yesterday. My dad readied his camera in order to capture this piece of history off the TV screen.
As the mighty Saturn 5 rocket began its journey upward, he chose his moment and tripped the shutter. I can remember the loud pop and blinding light from the flashbulb that was startling in the darkened room. Once the launch was over, a long trail of smoke in the sky was the only reminder of the miracle that had just occurred.
I carefully followed the mission as it unfolded. Because it was summer vacation, I was able to sit in our living room building my models on a TV tray and listening to Walter Cronkite describe every aspect of the mission in great detail.
I was a Cronkite man. Anchorman Jay Barbree covered the mission for NBC and Frank Reynolds for ABC, but I believe our nation’s collective memory is of Cronkite, whose voice came to personify the space program.
While the mission was still in progress, my mother picked up my dad’s photos from the Fotomat. There, in vivid color, was a perfectly exposed picture of our television set. No image was visible on the screen. It was as if the set had not even been turned on. The brightness of the flashbulb had washed out the images being broadcast live from the Cape that morning, leaving us with no evidence of the momentous event.
I can recall my deep disappointment with the flawed image.
As time passed however, I have guarded that tiny photograph as a precious relic. The blank screen has come to represent the moment as it passed, living only in my memory.
There is a Gothic cathedral in the small French town of Bayeux. It is an awe-inspiring structure that towers over the town as it reaches toward the heavens. I have no affiliation with any religious sect or denomination. I view religion as man’s attempt to make tangible something that is fundamentally intangible. So I find it ironic that one of the most spiritual experiences I know is sitting quietly in the cathedral.
The solace is very moving. My wife Kathryn and I have sat there in contemplation for long periods of time. As I sit, I imagine all of the souls that have passed through the structure over the centuries. It is a profound and humbling experience.
On a camping trip in the High Sierras with my son Dylan when he was nine, at the end of a long day of hiking, he was exhausted beyond anything he had ever experienced. As we set up camp he told me that he didn't think he could do the eighteen-mile hike out because he didn't think he would be able to move in the morning. He seemed frustrated that he had ended up in this predicament. I remember during our conversation he became despondent and kept telling me that he did not want me to die. How we landed on the subject I don’t remember. I suspect the delirium that he was experiencing factored into it.
I genuinely believe that this may have been the first time in his life that he, on a deep level, had contemplated death. I find it easier to grasp a concept if I’m able to attach a visual image to it, so I attempted to find an image that a nine-year-old could wrap his head around. I shared my view with him that the physical body is like a car that enables the spirit to experience the physical world. I explained that his body wasn't him. The spirit inside of him is Dylan. Like a car, when his body wears out, his spirit will find another car to get around in. He seemed comforted by the explanation.
I write about these experiences because when I had the rare opportunity to go inside the shuttle Discovery I felt the presence of the souls that had passed through her during the thirty years and millions of miles that she had traveled. It too felt like a spiritual place to me. I sensed the physical experiences she had afforded the few who had been carried into space in her protection. I can visualize the awe-inspiring vistas, and as I have heard countless astronauts recall, I can imagine the feeling of getting a glimpse of humanity’s place in the universe.
I am saddened that I will never again see another shuttle launch, but I am grateful to have been able to witness several firsthand. Among my proudest moments as a father was the opportunity to have Dylan, then seventeen, assist me on the Discovery (STS-133) launch. As Discovery climbed, I looked away for a moment to watch him gaze toward the sky. Upon seeing this, I was overwhelmed by emotion and began to cry. Once the shuttle was out of sight, he looked at me and told me that his life had just been forever changed.
The spectacle that was the shuttle launch is truly one of the most beautiful things that I have ever contemplated, and I have been brought to tears each time that I have born witness.
—Dan Winters, September 2011
In the fifty-year history of human spaceflight the most authentically human spacecraft, the vehicle that embodied its makers’ hopes and flaws most faithfully, was the American space shuttle. Time and again it carried aloft the dreams of a nation determined to reach beyond itself, launching the truest believers in that grandiose vision and showing the world the risk and wonder of believing in it. For thirty years the shuttle has demonstrated the strength and exposed the weakness of the people who built it, and the whole country shares its star-crossed legacy.
The other launch-worthy spacecraft in that half-century—Vostok, Mercury, Voskhod, Gemini, Soyuz, Apollo, and Shenzhou—were and are but sturdy capsules, disposable containers designed to carry explorers into deadly space and return them safely. The shuttle, in contrast, was intended from the start to exploit the void, to render it both accessible and manageable. Proponents compared it to the Conestoga wagon that enabled pioneer families to settle the frontier West, a fanciful analogy that expressed the Space Age dream more acutely than it captured the alien reality.
The Space Transportation System (STS), as the shuttle’s bureaucratic handlers cleverly branded it, was promoted as a practical scheme to realize the dream. Instead of shooting disposable capsules off on death-defying missions, it promised a system, a methodical way to make space travel prudent and painless. The key would be a revolutionary “orbiter,” a combination truck-and-bus that could blast off on a rocket, circle the planet for extended periods, then fly back to base like an airplane—and then turn around and do it all over again! A small fleet of these marvelous space—planes would take off and land on a regular schedule, shuttling back and forth between Earth and orbit like a rarified commuter train.
At the time this scheme was hatched, in the early 1970s, America was feeling pretty cocky about its space program. The country had just sent nine manned flights to the moon—six of which landed and all of which returned safely—within four years. Compared to that epic adventure, building a transport system to low orbit didn’t seem too challenging. The prospect was so alluring that everyone in government and industry, the military and the media, bought into it.
But they all had different plans for it. The Pentagon wanted to put giant spy satellites into polar orbits; private companies were more interested in firm schedules and equatorial trajectories; scientists needed a stable platform for elaborate experiments; the media advertised poets and anchormen along for the ride; and politicians insisted it pay for itself. NASA tried to please everyone, going back to the drawing board repeatedly as three successive presidents weighed in with differing priorities.
Thus hubris and muddle were designed right into the space shuttle with the full participation of everyone with a special interest. More than nine years elapsed in this way, and five different NASA administrators came and went between the formal congressional go-ahead in January 1972 and the maiden flight of Columbia, designated STS-1, in April 1981.
That same year saw the debut of MTV, the DeLorean sports car, and IBM’s new personal computer that used software developed by an upstart company named Microsoft. And the word “Internet” was heard for the first time, although almost nobody knew what it meant.
Over the next four years, three more orbiters—Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis—were added to the fleet as NASA struggled to ramp up the Space Transportation System. The original scheme called for two flights a month but that was proving problematic. Refitting the huge space planes after each mission was a massively intricate, time-consuming job made all the more vital because VIP passengers were now blasting off in them.
Among the lofty goals of the shuttle program was making space travel available to a broader assortment of humans than the steely-eyed Right Stuff champions of the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo years. The regular Astronaut Corps was expanded and diversified to include women, African Americans, Jewish, Hispanic, and Asian Americans from a wide range of disciplines, but the effort went even further.
With seven seats available on each orbiter the plan was to put observers in some of them, nonprofessional astronauts who carried a unique perspective or expertise into space. Initially this meant the representatives of high-paying customers who went up along with their payloads, either satellites or major experiments. As early as STS-9 in 1983, Columbia’s crew included such a “payload specialist” in the person of a German physicist who accompanied the Spacelab research module financed and built by the European Space Agency and parked in the cargo bay.
Half of the shuttle’s first twenty-four missions involved the deployment of communications satellites for private companies or other nations, which helped underwrite the cost of the mission. Five other missions were fully funded by the Department of Defense and are still classified. The most ridiculous experiment to fly in those years was the Coke-Pepsi taste test that took place on Challenger in July 1985, to judge which soda tasted most like itself in zero gravity. High-priced pictures were taken of the familiar cans floating around the flight deck. The Space Transportation System was definitely open for business.
(Coke won because they actually manufactured a zero-gravity soda can, whereas Pepsi didn’t bother—they just wanted the pictures.)
By 1985, as the launch rate increased to a record nine flights in twelve months, the “specialist” policy was extended to embrace pro bono passengers like the poets and journalists the shuttle’s promoters had promised to take into space. The first of these was a high school teacher from New Hampshire who intended to conduct classes from orbit, to be broadcast live to schools across America. She launched aboard Challenger in January 1986, on the coldest day a shuttle launch had ever been attempted.
All seven crew members were killed when the external fuel tank exploded seventy-three seconds after liftoff at an altitude of 48,000 feet. An investigation later determined that the crew compartment was hurled away intact, shot off like a cannonball for three full minutes before smashing into the ocean. At least three of the occupants were alert enough to activate their emergency oxygen feeds.
The Challenger explosion was the first fatal in-flight disaster the U.S. space program had ever suffered, and it brought on some painful soul-searching. The immediate cause of the accident turned out to be a single-point failure of a vulcanized rubber seal in one of the solid-rocket boosters that were bolted to the fuel tank, which allowed a blowtorch of flame to escape and detonate the tank. The seal failed because of the freezing air temperature that morning.
The deeper cause was shown to be hubris and muddle endemic to the whole shuttle program. Midlevel engineers had expressed concerns about the booster seal’s integrity in cold weather—concerns that never rose past midlevel managers paralyzed by indecision. A congressional inquiry mounted by the same politicians who had relentlessly nagged the agency to do more with less now concluded that “NASA’s drive to achieve a launch schedule of 24 flights per year created pressure throughout the agency that directly contributed to unsafe launch operations.”
NASA lost focus on safety because it had become obsessed with pleasing its patrons and clients, behaving like a public transportation system instead of a trailblazing engine of wonder. Many of the dreamers and geniuses who worked there had turned into government drones without realizing it, until tragedy forced them to look in the mirror. For two long years they re-examined everything about themselves, going back to the Space Age drawing board to locate their vision again.
The return-to-flight mission of Discovery in September 1988 was designated STS-26, but the rest of the system had been suspended. Potential customers were referred elsewhere—to unmanned rockets that didn’t put lives at risk for payloads—where they belonged in the first place. The focus was back on flying good missions when they were ready to fly, regardless of schedule. The agency had reorganized itself from top to bottom and rediscovered its core values. Thousands of upgrades had been made to the myriad parts and procedures that went into flying the shuttle, but these were just proofs of the renewed attitude. High standards and attention to detail had always been hallmarks of NASA at its best, and they became so again.
Public response to the tragedy was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the program, persuading Congress to fund a replacement orbiter built with spare parts left over from Discovery and Atlantis. Schoolchildren polled nationwide decided to name it Endeavour after the famous British sailing ship, which is why it is spelled in the British manner.
The next quarter-century brought the glory years of the space shuttle, such as they were. Payloads were fewer and farther between but had nobler aims than just paying bills. Interplanetary spacecraft designed to study the Sun and Venus and Jupiter were carried up and launched from the cargo bay. Discovery climbed to 400 miles, twice as high as a normal shuttle orbit, to position the Hubble Space Telescope where it could see the universe clearly. Four more Hubble missions followed over the years to service and enhance the brilliant observatory, and together comprised what will probably stand as the shuttle progam’s signature contribution to human knowledge.
There were hundreds of other, more incremental and less photogenic contributions in the form of satellites and experiments deployed by or conducted aboard the various shuttles. The multinational Spacelab module flew more than twenty times in the space truck’s cargo bay, providing a research facility for some of the world’s best scientists to investigate nature’s mysteries free of gravity’s warping effect. Entire libraries are today devoted to this accumulated wisdom, and dozens of startup companies have been founded to profit from it.
None of this excited the public imagination. To an incurious observer the shuttles just seemed to go ‘round and ‘round endlessly, which of course is exactly what they were supposed to do. They were never intended to be more than service vehicles for greater ambitions, but those were stillborn in the 1970s. The Space Age dream back then had shuttles ferrying back and forth to a great space station, like the vast orbiting wheel in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where human expeditions to Mars and the stars would be assembled. This had all seemed possible once upon a time, but never got out of committee in the U.S. Congress.
Then in the 1990s the lost dream of a space station was resurrected with a new, decidedly more earthbound purpose. The end of the Cold War offered an opportunity for former enemies and space-race rivals, America and Russia, to unite in the void. Together they might build and operate an outpost on the edge of the final frontier, an orbital symbol of peace on earth. This was a dream politicians could get behind—enough of them anyway, on both sides.
The two nations’ spacecraft could not have been more different. The American shuttle was a science geek’s idea of a cool ride, while the Russian Mir was a worker’s dacha in the frozen wilderness. Grizzled cosmonauts had been living aboard it for months at a time, staking their country’s claim to a piece of outer space, suffering for the motherland. The Americans had a program for getting to orbit and back, but the Russians knew how to live there.
When Atlantis docked with Mir in June 1995, it marked the start of an odd-couple story as unlikely as anything written by Chekhov or Simon. Mir was already four years beyond its design life, held together mainly by Russian pride, when the rich American guests arrived. By NASA standards the venerable station was a messy, leaky, noisy, smelly contraption that appeared unsafe. To cosmonaut eyes the sleek shuttle was overly complicated and extravagant, a fancy conceit that had proven itself unsafe.
Yet the spacecraft mated eight more times in the next three years as the two space programs learned to live with each other. Both brought to the table their own special blend of hubris and muddle and watched the other swallow it, and grudging respect grew into trust. Astronauts developed a taste for black bread and borscht while cosmonauts became addicted to M&Ms, the candy of choice in zero-g. They were compatible dreamers, after all, devotees of the Space Age muse that calls to humans to join the universe.
The shuttle-Mir relationship survived a fire, a collision in space, and attempted annulments in Washington and Moscow, before the formal engagement. The new partners led a worldwide collaboration to build an International Space Station (ISS) that was manufactured piece-by-piece in a dozen countries like some colossal three-dimensional puzzle that required assembly in zero gravity. At last the great purpose the space truck was made for had arrived.
Endeavour hauled up the first American piece, called Unity, in December 1998, joining it to the Zarya (dawn) module that launched two weeks earlier on a Russian heavy booster. Fifteen of the next twenty shuttle missions returned to this building site over the next four years, delivering components and supplies. Astronauts and cosmonauts formed a construction crew in spacesuits, floating around the expanding station, connecting the modules, plumbing and wiring and fitting the intricate pieces together.
The commanders at the controls of Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour were finally able to fulfill their pilots’ hearts’ desire to fly in space, truly fly, closing on and docking with another spacecraft. It was stick-and-rudder stuff in a freefall vacuum that couldn’t be simulated anywhere else. The unearthly skills they and their crewmates were mastering now made the shuttle astronauts the most capable spacemen and -women in the history of human spaceflight, earthlings trained to boldly go where no one had gone before.
Columbia played no part in constructing the ISS. The original orbiter weighed three-and-a-half tons more than its successors, severely restricting the loads it could deliver. Instead it handled the science assignments, servicing the Hubble and deploying the Chandra Observatory, which perceives in the x-ray spectrum what Hubble sees as visible light. Then in January 2003, it launched with the Spacehab research platform jammed with experiments in metallurgy, medicine, and Earth studies. It was the twenty-eigth flight of Columbia, and for sixteen days it accomplished its mission.
Entering earth’s atmosphere at the orbital velocity of 17,500 mph generates frictional heat up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so hot that thin air will bubble into fiery plasma. The aluminum used in an orbiter’s frame melts at 350 degrees. Protecting it are four inches of ceramic tiles and reinforced carbon-carbon shields, which make a very thin margin of survival. When Columbia blasted off, a scrap of insulating foam tore off the external fuel tank and struck the leading edge of the left wing, inflicting a pinhole fracture in shield #8. Sixteen days later, during re-entry, the plasma found the fracture and the wing melted from the inside out in less than a minute, causing a catastrophic destabilization. Columbia disintegrated at 200,000 feet and all seven crew members were killed instantly.
Like the Challenger disaster before it, the loss of Columbia brought a halt to shuttle flights and incited a national debate on the value of the program. The outcome this time was far less sympathetic. The public had grown increasingly bored by what seemed like repetitive missions, so there was little political support for continuing them. The White House, preoccupied now with foreign wars, announced that flights would end in 2010 when the ISS was due to be completed. There was hardly any argument about it.
A chastened NASA returned to space after two years with diminished dreams and no one to blame but themselves. Scraps of foam had been raining on orbiters without alarming anyone since the first launch of Columbia in 1981, so the long hard look in the mirror was especially humbling. There was no denying the shuttle was a flawed spacecraft. It simply wasn’t as strong or reliable as its makers had hoped it would be, or thought it was.
But the space truck still had work to do. Countries around the world had built parts and fixtures, entire modules for the International Space Station that had no way to get there except in the shuttle’s payload bay. Aside from one final mission to service the Hubble Telescope, the last twenty-two flights of Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour were all dedicated to ISS deliveries. Spread over six years they finished the job of building an orbital village, a Space Age Shangri-la that only true believers can find their way to.
For a world beset by the endless march of human foibles and natural calamities, having a giant space station circling it provides small comfort to the average inhabitant. But people have been living aboard the ISS continuously since 2000, studying the blue planet below them and adapting to alien ways. They are proving daily that the human species can rise above itself both literally and more profoundly, to grow beyond our heritage. For all its shortcomings, the space shuttle is the vehicle that made this possible.
Nearly three-quarters of the five-hundred-plus men and women who have reached outer space in the last half-century were taken there by the old space bus. Many went three or four times and learned to feel at home on the final frontier. They came from thirteen nations and took with them a worldwide range of experience, culture, profession, religion, and personality, but they all shared the same bold dream. Leaving the earth is an act of hubris by definition, an attempt to escape our natural place in the cosmic order. There will always be muddle because we are human, after all, and the margin of survival will always be thin. But the Space Age dream is brighter, closer, and more inclusive because of the space shuttle, and that is a profoundly American legacy.
The five space shuttles flew a total of 135 missions, including the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Discovery flew the most, thirty-nine, followed by Atlantis at thirty-three. The last one built, Endeavour, only made it to orbit twenty-five times before it was shipped off to a museum. They were each supposed to be good for a hundred flights when they rolled off the assembly line, and that shortfall is a fair measure of the gap between our dreams and our ability where space travel is concerned. It is never going to be prudent or painless.
The retirement of the orbiter fleet was lamentable but justified, like recalling a luxury car with a history of accidents. America is smaller because its space program has been disabled, and that is unfortunate. Without the shuttle to haul people and equipment back and forth, the International Space Station is a frustrated enterprise—just as the shuttle was before it had someplace to go to. The Russians can ferry people and supplies, but they don’t have the payload capacity the shuttle offered, so the orbital outpost is compromised as soon as it was finished.
Our star-struck dream is ancient, though, as old as the human race; the universe still calls to us. We can’t deny it or ignore it, and the dreamers among us will find a way. Outer space is human territory. There will be other spacecraft in the future, vehicles that are more dependable or can travel further, or just cost less to operate. That is inevitable.
Dan Winter’s remarkable photographs show a great machine coming alive to accomplish its purpose. That would be lifting a half-dozen people and twenty-five tons of cargo off the ground and into orbit two hundred vertical miles above the launch pad. In order to stay up there, it has to be traveling 17,500 mph horizontally as well. If everything works correctly this takes about eight minutes.
A poetically inclined astronaut once described the fully assembled launch stack as looking like “a butterfly bolted to a bullet.” The winged orbiter is the butterfly, of course, while everything else has the ominous quality of a 180-foot artillery shell. The mustard-colored, bullet-shaped part of the stack is a giant tank filled with half-a-million gallons of volatile gases chilled to liquid form. On each side is a solid rocket booster packed with five hundred tons of pure explosive, enough to blow the whole affair sky-high, which is precisely their purpose.
The shuttle stack on the launch pad is a monumental object of anxiety for everyone involved. The number of things that can go wrong, called “failure modes,” is more than mere humans can deal with. Supercomputers count off the critical points in milliseconds, analyzing the flood of data pouring in from the ticking stack.
Six-point-six seconds before liftoff huge turbopumps start blasting the fuel mixture into the combustion chambers of the orbiter’s three main engines. As thrust builds, the entire stack rocks forward but is held down by immense steel arms. When it rocks back to vertical the solids fire and all 2,200 tons of stack fly straight up.
It goes up so fast it’s like a magician’s trick. The blast of fire and noise is a stupefying distraction while the gigantic bullet just vanishes. In the blink of an eye it’s a five-mile trail of smoke arcing over the ocean and accelerating, moving faster already than any real bullet can. At two minutes the solid rockets have burned a thousand tons of propellant and drop away near the edge of space.
For another six minutes the orbiter’s engines stay throttled up to reach orbital velocity, ten times faster than a rifle bullet, still climbing but halfway across the Atlantic by now. When the engines have finally gulped the last of those half-million gallons of gas the external tank drops away, almost in orbit itself.
And the butterfly is free of the Earth.