Columbia escorted to landing at Edwards Air Force Base in 1993
As many of you know nearly my entire working career was spent at NASA. I was very much involved with flight experiments, first on the Russian spacecraft COSMOS, then the 14-day Gemini VII missions. I proudly watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step on the Moon during the Apollo program, and followed the research on Skylab as it was happening. As the acting Deputy Director of Space Research at the NASA Ames Research Center in 1976, I was thrilled to watch the first images of Mars as the Viking spacecraft landed on the red planet. Exciting as all of these experiences were, none matched the beauty and the drama of my Shuttle years – and I did not even fly in space.
I’ll take you back to 1973, when in a board room meeting, our Director, Dr. Hans Mark, explained NASA’s decision to stop work on the space station and instead focus resources on developing the Shuttle. It was said that we could not afford both and a major selling point of the shuttle was its cost-effectiveness. The space shuttle was like a space ‘bus’ – for the first time NASA (and for that matter anyone) would have a reusable space craft that could ‘shuttle’ back and forth with both astronauts and cargo to the station when it was ultimately built.
It’s hard to forget the launch of the first Shuttle, Columbia, back in 1981 with Apollo astronaut, John Young and rookie pilot Bob Crippen. A major consideration in the selection of these pioneers was the early research of our bed-rest studies. The studies showed the likelihood that in the shuttle even older men or women might be able to handle the rigors of the 20 minute higher gravity acceleration, re-entry profile, and be able to pilot the shuttle back to earth. Never before had the astronauts needed to have their cognitive and physical abilities in place upon re-entry.
The Shuttle was primarily designed to act as a hauler. It could carry humans as well as 50,000 lbs of important cargo into orbit and then return to Earth for a soft landing. This cargo capacity is what made it possible to launch jumbo space telescopes and satellites, or to repair the ailing Hubble telescope that is still sending us back stunning images from the outer corners of the universe.
Over the years, NASA began to use the shuttle much more for scientific research, something the Shuttle had neither been designed nor equipped to do. Missions grew in length, and so too did the importance of our work to keep astronauts healthy and safe during and after their missions.
The partnership of astronaut and Shuttle saw Earth without borders, its floods and fires.
I had the benefit of getting close to Columbia when in 1993 I went to work at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. For this mission, Columbia’s cargo bay held Spacelab, a fully equipped life and microgravity research laboratory built by the Europeans. My first responsibility as Director of Life Sciences was the Space Life Sciences-2 mission. It was impossible to realize how cramped the crew quarters were until I spent a whole day with the 7 astronauts in their shuttle simulator while they trained for their 14-day mission. I ate their food and appreciated their tight timeline, as I tried to not get in their way. Shuttle astronauts train for about two years until they are drilled to respond to almost every possible scenario. The trainers throw in unexpected problems for them to overcome. Everything is orchestrated so that each knows exactly what they are doing and how to work best as a team.
Anyone who came in close contact with the Shuttle was seduced— NASA Administrators, Presidents, astronauts and ground crew. Because astronauts of all nationalities wanted to ride the Shuttle, a new era of international cooperation in space began. These partnerships did much to improve our international relations as cooperation replaced competition.
It was impossible to not gasp at Columbia’s gleaming, streamlined beauty as it launched into earth orbit. Less popular but my personal favorite was the elegant and seemingly effortless silent glide to landing that belied the firewall it had just gone through. I had not expected to see the landing of Space Life Sciences-2 but poor weather in Florida caused Columbia to be diverted to its alternate landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in California. This meant that there was hardly anyone at the shuttle’s landing. There I was as Columbia came to a stop on the runway. The astronauts exited, the payloads were unloaded and I found myself alone standing under Columbia, her skin slightly beat up with char marks on the tiles— not an airplane as some thought of it and not a simple machine. I stood there in awe. I told her she was beautiful anyway. I thanked her for bringing back her precious cargo. That was a magic moment I shall always cherish.
A few moments later I was present when the pilot Rick Searfoss was being tested for balance on the sway platform. One of the moves required he do the test with eyes shut. As we watched, Searfoss swayed forward without putting his arms out to protect his fall. A group of us jumped in and grabbed! His 14-day flight was the longest to date and we learned that day that this length of space flight erases the sensation of falling. A moment of discovery, it opened up a whole field of understanding of how the brain and gravity work together here on Earth. This discovery was further explored on the Neurolab mission in 1998. From that point on all astronauts wore a harness during the posture test.
Later in 1998 was another special moment for me as John Glenn returned to space at the age of 77. Not surprisingly, about 1,000 news media were there to report on this event. Many of us NASA folks were there busily answering questions in different languages. As the shuttle landed at Cape Canaveral in Florida, this time after nine days in space, my heart was nervously pounding until I saw Senator Glenn come safely down the shuttle steps. As I wrote in my book The G-Connection, Harness Gravity and Reverse Aging Senator Glenn’s triumphant return to space got real during a conversation at my desk in NASA HQ. There was much concern about his age. I had been confident that he would do fine in flight - it was the return to Earth’s gravity that I was worried about. Happily, my worries were unfounded. His data reminded us that it is not how old you are but how well you take care of yourself that determines your ability to respond to physical challenges.
One question is whether the public's love affair with the Shuttle was because it looked like an airplane? Perhaps because of that we expected it to be as safe. But going into space is a seriously risky business. The loss of Challenger in 1986 was hard for all Americans and for me because I met the crew on their visits to Ames to train on the Shuttle-landing simulator. My dear Columbia and her crew were similarly lost on reentry in 2003, reminding us just how risky this business will always be. We lost 14 of the best.
The shuttles are now 30. This may sound old but the Shuttles have a lot more flying years in them since each was designed to fly 100 times and they are nowhere near that. However, they are now done. The decision to retire them is not for safety reasons but the cost of operating both the International Space Station (ISS) and the Shuttles at the same time. Yet neither works best without the other. Without them there is no way to carry out external repair work on the ISS in the event of a system failure or accident. Loss of control of the ISS would mean catastrophic reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Commercial space developers and the Russian Soyuz are expected to fill the gap for the near term.
Whatever the outcome of this debate, I feel so fortunate to have lived this amazing happy and sad Shuttle era.
As they retire to museums, millions of all ages will admire, touch, explore them inside-out and dream of leaping far beyond Earth in a way that watching them on TV, could never do. The Shuttles’ new mission – to remind the next generations of last century’s daredevil creativity and to inspire them to always reach for the stars.