30 years ago, the first space shuttle, Columbia, was launched. It ushered in a new age of space travel; a ‘cheap’, re-usable space-plane capable of taking heavy payloads and large crews into space on a routine basis. As a child, I found it the most exciting human adventure ever; here was the beginning of the colonisation of space.
The tragedies of Challenger and Columbia curtailed the programme, which ends this year. The BBC popular science programme Horizon took this opportunity to sum up 30 years of coverage, triumphs and disasters side by side…
The shuttle programme was hailed as a triumph of technology, engineering and organisation, but Horizon reminded us that the programme was the product of an economy drive. A re-usable craft was seen as the only way forward from the disposable Apollo missions that had cost billions of dollars each.
From the outset, the design was flawed, compromised by the need to launch military satellites throughout the Cold War (not mentioned by Horizon)and by the engineering limitations of lifting such a large craft into orbit. The shuttle was never able to fly as frequently as planned (every two weeks), nor offset the costs with commercial launches. The best run of nine launches in a year ended when the Challenger shuttle broke up mid-launch in January 1986, killing the crew which included school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who had won her place in a national competition. This one personal and individual tragedy was the centre-piece, as Horizon stepped us through the mistakes in design, safety, bureaucracy and politics which continued to the Columbia disaster and the cancellation of the aged shuttle fleet.
Ice proved the undoing of both lost shuttles; the flawed manufacture of Challengers’ re-usable booster rockets and the frozen slab of foam which damaged Columbia’s wing were both attributed to cold weather conditions; risk assessments were compromised because of concerns about costly delays and public relations embarrassments.
Even NASA’s greatest success launching the Hubble telescope was a story of an heroic rescue of an engineering failure.
We were reminded of the wonders of space flight, summed up, as always, in a few zero-gravity clips of astronauts aboard the shuttles, the space-walks and spectacular shots of the Earth from orbit.
Some excellent updated interviews with some of the key engineers, crew and administrators could only reinforce the overall tone of the show; as a viewer you were left with incredulity at the follies and repeated mistakes over 30 years.
“How will the space shuttle be remembered?” asked the narrator. “As a great adventure in human space exploration, or as a fatally flawed white elephant?” It’s a simplistic question; of course the answer is both, but in what measure? In truth we are probably still too close to events to make that judgement. RC