The Space Shuttle by Jean-Pierre Luminet

This is the thirteenth of my “Illustrated Space Chronicles”. About you wish to acquire my book in its non-illustrated paper version (original edition 2019 or in paperback 2020), refrain yourself!

The space shuttle

In early 1969, amid the euphoria of the success of the lunar missions, NASA studied the follow-up to be given to the program Apollo. Several proposals are developed internally: space station, lunar base, expedition to Mars, space shuttle. But the Vietnam War weighed heavily on the budgets. NASA is aware of the need to lower costs. Until now, rockets, capsules and ships were only intended for a single use. The US agency is persuading donor Congress that a reusable spacecraft would bring down the cost of rocket launches and halt the ambitions of European and Soviet rivals.

Thus was born the Space Shuttle, a true masterpiece of technology based on a classic delta-wing model aircraft with an evolving profile.

Early sketches of the US Space Shuttle (NASA, 1960s)

The launch of the first shuttle ColumbiaApril 12, 1981, is a great television moment. The power of the boosters when fired is impressive. After a few maneuvers in orbit, the rocket plane landed two days later at an air base. For the first time, a crew returns from space and lands in the same way as an airplane on a runway. This is a success despite the large number of damaged thermal protection tiles.

Historic launch of the Columbia shuttle on April 12, 1981
At left, astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen in the cockpit of Columbia during their first flight. On the right, you return to Earth after the maiden flight. © Nasa

Five models of shuttles will be manufactured and will fly between 1981 and 2011: Columbia, Discovery, Challenger, Atlantis and Endeavour.

In their early days, their mission was mainly to launch commercial civilian and especially military satellites. They also place large space telescopes in high orbit, such as the famous ones Hubble Space Telescope and the X-ray satellite Chandra.

Shuttle Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on April 24, 1990 with the Hubble Space Telescope in its cargo hold.

In the late 1990s, their main goal became the service of the Russian space station Mirthen the assembly in circuit of the components i International Space Station.

But beyond its scientific successes, the program would prove to be a resounding failure, both psychologically and commercially. Psychological first because of two dramas. In 1986, the space shuttle was Challenger, carrying seven astronauts, exploded seventy-three seconds after liftoff. The shock is all the more serious in public opinion as this shooting was more publicized than the previous ones due to the presence of young teacher Christa McAuliffe on board. The US military withdraws from the program and the space shuttles are banned from flying for two and a half years, it’s time to improve them. Another tragedy occurred in 2003: the space shuttle Columbia breaks up as it returns to earth, also killing the seven astronauts on board.

Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger shortly after launch on January 28, 1986

Business error that is. Shuttle launches ultimately proved more expensive than conventional rocket launches. Not only are they not being repaired as quickly as hoped between two flights, but the cost of repairs is proving prohibitive, to the point that America ends up giving up launching civilian and military satellites through this medium. The decision has been made to retire the shuttle fleet. The last flight took place in July 2011.

Shuttle Atlantis completed the last flight of the fleet in July 2011 to resupply the International Space Station (mission STS-135).

In total, the five American space shuttles will have made 135 flights over a period of thirty years.

Other space nations have developed several shuttle projects, but most have been abandoned due to their complexity and prohibitive cost. This was especially the caseHermesEuropean shuttle project, which was to be launched by the rocket Ariadne 5.

In 1988, the Soviets succeeded in launching a fully automatic shuttle without a crew on board. However, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the program could not be continued. Shuttle Buran became the property of Kazakhstan, financially unable to use it. signs of decay, Buran was destroyed in 2002 when the shed it was stored in collapsed…

The Russian shuttle Buran on the back of the giant Antonov aircraft

Since then, the only manned reusable spacecraft to successfully complete a suborbital flight was made in 2004 by a private company. The ship SpaceShipOne reached an altitude of 111 kilometers before coming to rest on its launch pad. This success initially sowed hope for the commercial development of space tourism, but this has since encountered a series of failures and disappointments.

SpaceShipTwo of Virgin Galactic, the company owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, crashed on November 1, 2014 in the Mojave Desert in California, causing one death and serious injury and dealing a severe setback to the dream of space tourism.

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