On April 12, 1981, astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen took off in the Columbia space shuttle. Their flight was the first launch of the Space Transportation System (STS). Once in orbit, a look back at the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) (the two lumps below the fin on the back of the body of the shuttle) showed there were some insulating tiles missing. Because the OMS had a secondary thermal protection (a felt-like fabric) and the area did not reach as high a temperature during re-entry, STS-1 landed safely. The thermal protection system (of which the tiles were a part) would be a continuing problem for the shuttles, one that would eventually cause the destruction of Columbia and the death of seven astronauts on January 16, 2003.
Columbia was the second shuttle to be lost in flight; Challenger was destroyed January 28, 1986 by a failure of a Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) gasket because of cold weather, and seven astronauts also died.
The STS was beyond the cutting edge of technology and into the bleeding edge of technology. (1) STS attempted to do things that had never been done before. It was literally designed by committee. Design compromises were made to attract users. Political considerations compromised the design at every turn. President Richard Nixon, whom many believe hated the space program because it was associated with John F. Kennedy (who defeated Nixon in the 1960 election), made budget cuts that forced the shuttle to adopt SRBs instead of liquid-fueled boosters. Prior to the shuttle, the idea of man-rating SRBs was considered ridiculous. It’s still not regarded as an optimal solution because once started, it cannot be shut down. The rocket must launch.
The shuttles were dangerous. The turnaround time was months instead of the weeks it was supposed to have been. They were expensive. They did a lot of things adequately, which meant they did little excellently.
The decision to end the shuttles was painful, but in the end it was the right one.
The shuttles have been gone for a while; why mention it now? About a half hour before I began writing this, Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus cargo ship successfully docked with the International Space Station ISS) after being launched with the Antares rocket. This is the second non-governmental corporation to successfully fly a cargo ship to the ISS, with SpaceX‘s Falcon 9 rocket having delivered the Dragon capsule to the ISS back in May of 2012. (2)
The demise of the space shuttle has helped to privatized space travel. Without the governmen-backed space shuttle, corporations can compete to fly cargo to the ISS. Cargo ships are a way to get paid while developing more advanced spacecraft. SpaceX has planned all along to make their Dragon capsule capable of safely carrying humans into orbit. The government provides a ready customer base as these private corporations develop. As the industry develops, though, more and more space travel will be non-governmental–just as happened with the airplane.