April 2006 
Volume 04, Issue 11 
Historical Perspective

A flight to a new age

First Space Shuttle test flight 25 years ago was an engineering triumph


Space Shuttle Columbia lifting offIn the words of NASA administrator Michael Griffin, it's "the most amazing machine humans have ever built, and it has been the recipient of the most brilliant engineering that America can provide."

It's the Space Shuttle. North American Rockwell's Aerospace Group, now a part of Boeing, received the prime contract to develop the Shuttle fleet. This spacecraft broke from capsule-based designs to be the world's first reusable winged spacecraft, and the first spacecraft in history that could carry large satellites to and from orbit. It launches like a rocket, maneuvers on Earth orbit like a spacecraft and lands like an airplane. Today, the Space Shuttle, with its huge 60-foot-by-15-foot (18.2-meter-by-4.6-meter) payload bay, is essential to completing assembly of the International Space Station. It may even service the Hubble Space Telescope one last time, before it's retired in 2010.

This month NASA and its industry team will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the most challenging test flight in its history: the first development flight of the Space Shuttle, on April 12, 1981. That flight launched one of the most unique and complex spacecraft ever assembled and initiated the incredible series of human space flights that make up the record of success the Space Shuttle has built.

The first orbiter built was Enterprise. Although never designed to fly into space, it was crucial to the Space Shuttle program. Carried atop a modified Boeing 747, it was used in a series of approach and landing tests in 1977. Those early tests proved the orbiter could fly in the atmosphere and land like a glider.

In 1972, Rockwell was awarded the contract to design and build the orbiter Columbia, which was rolled out of Air Force Plant 42 at the Palmdale, Calif., assembly facility on March 8, 1979. On Dec. 29, 1980, Columbia, the first of the five operational orbiters, was rolled out to the launch pad for the first time at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

Rockwell built the aft fuselage and crew module at its facility in Downey, Calif., where most of the design work for the orbiter was done. "The design took about 18 months, and we subcontracted a lot of the work to outside major vendors," said Dan Brown, Rockwell vice president of production operations for the Space Shuttle, who was responsible for Downey and Palmdale manufacturing. Once the design was finalized, Rockwell took about three years to assemble the orbiter.

Seymour "Sy" Rubenstein was Rockwell's chief engineer in 1978 and eventually ran the entire Rockwell Space Shuttle program. Rubenstein, who passed away in February, remembered the challenges of building Columbia and the first flight in an interview in 2003. "I remember when I started on the program I asked myself, 'Is it possible to do this thing?' But what we did was just focus on one year at a time," Rubenstein said.

quote from Dwight WoolhouseThe first Space Shuttle test flight had significant risks, since NASA did not have the benefit of earlier unmanned test flights as it had with Apollo. "The people who flew [the test flight] really were quite courageous because there was no guarantee. We had done everything we knew how to prior to flight, but STS-1 opened the door," Rubenstein said. The mission tested performance, the payload doors and other systems on orbit, which worked perfectly. "I can't think of any major change we made to the vehicle that was revolutionary. I think almost all the changes were evolutionary," Rubenstein said.

Dwight Woolhouse, then a subsystem manager for the aero surface mechanisms, supported the flight at a console in the Downey Mission Support Room during the mission. He remembers the launch and landing as being an emotional experience for everyone who participated in it.

"We were watching all the position sensors on orbit for the payload doors to make sure everything was proper, then seeing the aero surfaces become active as the vehicle prepared to land. All of those systems performed perfectly on that first flight," said Woolhouse, now the Space Shuttle program's associate director for orbiter development.

Among the new inventions on the shuttle were heat-resistant tiles designed to protect the aluminum frame and internal components from the searing heat of reentry, which can be as high as 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit (1260 C). But there were some problems following delivery to Kennedy Space Center, and a NASA-led team was formed to solve them.

Rubenstein said the tile on the vehicle was breaking "at a point where we didn't understand why it was breaking. Then somebody finally figured out, by looking at an electron microscope, that the strands (in the tiles) were breaking. It was like all the load was being carried in these pillars," he recalled. The solution: Put a thin plate of cement on the bottom so the pillars went into the plate of cement. That way, Rubenstein said, "the stress wasn't in each of the individual strands and was now spread out." Unfortunately, about two-thirds of the orbiter was done with the old method of installing the tiles, and it took about a year, Rubenstein said, to change out the tiles.

Dream team

A partial list of companies that provided components of the Space Shuttle

McDonnell Douglas: Orbital Maneuvering System pods, aft and forward skirts, nose cap and attachment

Rocketdyne: Development of the three main engines (the first reusable liquid fueled rocket engines)

Martin Marietta: External tank (carries the fuel for the three main engines)

Morton Thiokol: Strap-on solid rocket boosters

Grumman: Wings

General Dynamics: Mid fuselage

Fairchild: Tail

Notes: Boeing and McDonnell Douglas merged; Rocketdyne is now part of Pratt & Whitney; Martin Marietta is now Lockheed Martin; Morton Thiokol is now part of Alliant Techsystems; Grumman is now part of Northrop Grumman

Another innovation on the Space Shuttle was the avionics system. "The real secret in the avionics was we had complete control of the total vehicle. Everything that was on that vehicle went through the computer system except for dropping the landing gear," Rubenstein said.

Even though the shuttle has proved to be the most reliable launch vehicle ever built, there have been failures reminding us just how risky spaceflight is. A suitcase-size piece of foam from the external tank struck the wing leading edge of Columbia, damaging a reinforced carbon-carbon wing panel that caused the craft's breakup on reentry in February 2003. NASA and its industry team has learned many lessons from those failures and made hundreds of improvements to the Space Shuttle design.

Even though the vehicle has been around for a generation, Space Shuttle flights still capture the attention of the public, let alone program teammates. Having supported 114 shuttle flights, Woolhouse is still excited every time the Space Shuttle flies. He currently is supporting the second return-to-flight mission, STS-121, scheduled for July.

"I admire everything that NASA is trying to achieve with exploration today, but I still think the Space Shuttle is a fantastic flying machine," he said. "Although it may look routine, it never is, and it takes a tremendous, dedicated industry and NASA team that puts their heart and soul into this program."


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