by Larry Grooms, special to Aerotech News
Marking the 40th anniversary of the first space shuttle orbital launch and landing, the Los Angeles–Las Vegas Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics convened an online panel of authors and editors to offer their evaluations on the Space Shuttle era.
The panelists, contributing authors or editors for the University of Nebraska’s Outward Odyssey books series, offered widely ranging and often divergent thoughts, memories and observations on the promise and performance of the Space Shuttle program.
Moderator David Hitt, co-author of two books, Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story, and Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, worked as a contractor at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center beginning in 2002. He currently supports the center’s Human Exploration Development and Operations office, responsible for human spaceflight efforts ranging from science operations on the International Space Station to development of future space habitats.
Relating though an exclusive photographic display, characterized as a Personal Journey, aerospace writer, photographer and communications specialist Michelle Evans, founder and president of Mach 25 Media, led off the dialogue with detailed presentation on her book, The X-15 Rocket Plane, Flying the First Wings into Space.
Lifelong space enthusiast Geoffrey Bowman, a retired lawyer living in Belfast, Northern Ireland, remembers the flights of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard, and has fond and vivid memories of the Apollo missions. He saw the Saturn rocket launch of Apollo-Soyuz in July 1975. Having contributed two chapters to Outward Odyssey’s Footprints in the Dust, Bowman has submitted the manuscript for a biography of Apollo 17 astronaut Ron Evans. With the working title: A Long Voyage to the Moon, the book is due to be published later this year.
Colin Burgess wrote more than 30 books on human space exploration, with titles including: Selecting the Mercury Seven – The Search for America’s First Astronauts; Teacher in Space – Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger Legacy; Fallen Astronaut, and most recently, Shattered Dreams. Residing in Sydney, Australia, Burgess mentors new spaceflight authors, guiding them through the publication process.
Jay Chladek is a spaceflight historian and a regular contributor to the online forum collectSPACE. In his Outward Odyssey volume Outposts on the Frontier, Chladek documents the historical tapestry of the people, the early attempts at space station programs, and how astronauts and engineers contributed to and shaped the International Space Station.
It might be said that Melvin Croft brought to the panel a perspective of someone who bridges the gap between the soil and space. With 40 years of experience as a professional geologist, working in industry for 27 years and teaching geology in college for a dozen more, Croft has made human space flight his avocation since the beginning, having met many astronauts and cosmonauts.
Collaborating with John Youskauskas, Mel is working on another addition to the Outward Odyssey book series, chronicling the story of extravehicular activity.
Francis French brings international experience in relating science, engineering, music, astronomy, art, and wildlife to general audiences through classes, workshops, public speaking, and television and documentary productions. He is the author of bestselling history books, including, In the Shadow of the Moon for the Outward Odyssey series.
Chris Gainor, who holds a PhD in the history of technology and specializes in writing about space exploration, is president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. His sixth book, Not Yet Imagined: A Study of Hubble Space Telescope Operations, was published by the NASA History Program Office. His book To A Distant Day: The Rocket Pioneers, was published in 2008.
Jay Gallentine, author of two books, Ambassadors From Earth and Infinity Beckoned: Adventuring Through the Inner Solar System, focuses his space research on unmanned lunar and planetary programs of the United State and former Soviet Union.
Disagreements on mission values
With the scheduled two-hour Zoom conference clock counting down to overtime, the talk turned from anecdotes and nostalgia to introspection about how some past hard choices and missteps in space exploration could influence future success or failure.
On one level there was the thought expressed by Gallentine that national government’s over-promised and under-delivered ambitions for the orbital Space Shuttle capabilities ultimately redirected resources for robotic systems to explore the universe.
Historian Gainor agreed a lot was achieved in the era of the space shuttle, but he points out a series of flaws brought about in the 1970s by lots of compromises “to save a few bucks.” Gainor also said he believes the totality of what was achieved by the shuttle program has never been properly appreciated. Evans said the technical contributions by X-15 test pilot and astronaut Joe Engle and Milt Thompson saved the shuttle program, when they went down to Florida to warn NASA planners not to pursue the idea of adding pop-up jet engines to the space shuttle orbiter for landings. She also said she believes both the Challenger and Columbia losses were avoidable, had officials applied lessons from the X-15 program to the shuttle orbiters.
There were no quick or easy answers to issues raised. On the one hand, it was argued that spending on space shuttles restricted crewless robotic research. On the other hand, space shuttle crews corrected flaws in the Hubble Space Telescope, resulting in a vastly improved view of the universe and pictures offering meteorologists the tools to deliver more accurate weather forecasts. With an expansive cargo bay and extra-vehicular activity capability, a shuttle orbiter could service, repair and extend the service lives of orbiting satellites, and deliver new satellites into orbit at far less cost than launching atop a conventional rocket.
Addressing ongoing arguments over whether the shuttle program was or was not successful, Gallentine said creating the shuttle to accomplish so many kinds of missions required extraordinary risks.
But its success in evolving to accomplish unexpected work over many years, demonstrated that fear born of uncertainty would have paralyzed the overall effort. From its very inception, existing technology raced to meet growing shuttle performance demands, and mostly succeeded. He characterized the situation as “trying to build a 747 with DC-3 technology.”
It was pointed out more than once that whatever shortcomings the early model orbiters endured, the Space Shuttle program delivered 22 years of good service to America. And Francis French observed that the Space Shuttle was the only thing flying that couldn’t be tested before it was flown. He called the first space flight of Columbia “one of the most dangerous things that was ever done in space.”
Bowman saw on television the final landing of the last American space shuttle in the dark of night. He was, he said, “Overwhelmed by a sense of melancholy.” Michelle Evans viewed the end of the shuttle program after STS-135 as “an anti-climax.” It ended well, she said, but it could have continued, undated “to fix the flaws and get us back faster. It might be flying today.”
Chladek remarked, “For 30 years we had a shuttle program, and then, nothing.”
Hitt commented that the history of the space shuttle is about half of all human spaceflight’s total history, which began with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. And Merlin concluded, “The shuttle was flying on borrowed time. It was nine years until we were able to launch our own astronauts into space again.’