Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sucker for the Shuttle

Tomorrow, April 12, 2013, will be the 32nd anniversary of space shuttle Columbia's inaugural flight, and the beginning of the STS, the Space Transportation System. It was a day I had waited for since 1971, when I first heard the word "space shuttle".
Now, the idea of a shuttle vehicle really wasn't that unusual to me. I was eight, and I saw the shuttlecraft Galileo, and others, on "Star Trek". Of course, this wasn't the same thing. It was akin to a ship's launch, lowered over the side and rowed ashore when necessary, not that you were actually rowing these shuttlecraft onto those planetary shores. But my hazy memory of that time during the summer of 1971 is still there, as we watched the Apollo 15 mission.
I do not recall if it was an official NASA animation. Strangely, my memory recalls it as a commercial for Tang. But they showed animation for the next phase to follow Apollo, a winged spaceship that was carried up on the back of another, larger winged vehicle. They called it the space shuttle.

Spaceships with wings weren't new to me, either. With a healthy, regular dose of old science fiction films, I knew that real spaceships were supposed to have wings. Walt Disney said they would, so did George Pal, both back in the 1950's. And even if they didn't have wings, they had fins and were streamlined.

Courtesy Fantastic Plastic

I didn't quite know who Werhner von Braun was, or that he was one of the early propagators of winged spaceships. I knew about the X-15, though, courtesy of World Book Encyclopedia, and I knew it could go pretty high and pretty fast. I'd even had a model of a winged spacecraft, the booster stage of Revell's "Atomic Space Explorer Solaris", a reissue/rehash of their "Helios" spaceship from a decade earlier. So winged spaceships were not a strange idea to me. That NASA was seriously considering doing it basically blew my little mind.
I tried as best I could to follow the development of the program, but I was a pretty typical nerdy kid, messing with model rockets, chemistry sets and building plastic kits. In the fall of 1973, when I really started getting into model rockets, I discovered that Centuri Model Rockets had made a model based upon the initial straight wing, flyback booster shuttle design. 
Clearly, this thing was going to happen.

What I didn't know was that NASA had already finalized the design, a compromise from all the requirements being foisted upon it; smaller budget, bigger payload, smaller budget, defense requirements, smaller budget. It was a year later that Popular Science published an article that really proved, again, that NASA was going to do this thing, just in a different way.

Clearly, they were really going to do it. Really.
Over the next few years, I followed its development. When the last Apollo mission flew, not to the Moon but to low Earth orbit to meet the Soviets in a show of detente, the anticipated four year gap leading up the shuttle's first launch, from summer of 1975 to 1979, seemed like forever. 
When you're a kid, four years is a very long time.
But I followed it, with the most rapt attention my pre-teen (and soon teen) brain could muster.
I watched the CBS Evening News in the summer of 1976 as they rolled out the first shuttle, the Enterprise, with most of the cast "Star Trek" on hand. I was giddy. "Enterprise"! Cool! I gobbled up magazine articles whenever possible.

As the shuttle program was rolling along, they were making changes. The colors, the markings, the names ("Kitty Hawk" was one of the names considered). Estes Model Rockets was now doing shuttle, and it looked nice. Complicated, yes. But nice.

The first plastic kits were hitting the shelves at Art's Hobby Shop by the summer of 1977, and yours truly was there. Didn't buy any, because I couldn't afford to, but I was there nevertheless. 
More magazine and newspaper articles, and some harsh truths.

Not only an ad, but an iron on.

The official names finally came out, and the first bird up would be "Columbia". Enterprise, having served its purpose, was to be retired (I gasped, too). However, NASA was going to have to delay the program. There would be no launches in 1979 for certain, and 1980 looked a little. Bit. More.Certain.
Then they pushed it back to early 1981. The machine that had promised to lower the price of going into low Earth orbit was proving complicated and fairly expensive.
A lot more expensive.
All of the compromises led to problems no one anticipated. It was around that time that one of my teachers taught me a little known engineering axiom. In short, low development costs almost always lead to high operating costs (probably no longer true, but you get the idea).
Not that any of this really mattered to me at the time.
When Columbia finally rose off the pad that Sunday morning thirty two years ago, none of that mattered. All that mattered was that the shuttle, our wings into space, was really flying. Finally.

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