Most books about NASA focus on the trailblazing programs like Mercury and Apollo. They talk about the moonwalkers and the Mercury Seven, with Gemini getting lumped in with either or both. And why not? Between the Russians marching inexorably toward the Soyuz program and the US going for the moon, it was a heady time in human history. Literally everything Gagarin, Shepard, Leonov, and Armstrong did had never been done before. But we never hear much about Skylab and we never hear about the space shuttle.
Until now. Rick Houston, who wanted to be an astronaut when he was a kid, writes about the Shuttle Program in Wheels Stop, highlighting the career of the world’s most complex aircraft from just after the Challenger disaster to the end of STS 135. One gets the impression that Houston considers everything pre-Challenger part of the earlier era of human spaceflight. But then the early shuttle flights were dominated by Gemini and Apollo veterans and Apollo recruits who had not yet flown to the moon or on Skylab. John Young was a frequent flyer, as was Apollo-Soyuz command module pilot Vance Brand, who spent the 70s as capcom on lunar missions and standing by as the rescue pilot for Skylab.
The shuttle was by no means routine, even if the public had gotten complacent about it. The shuttle, however, proved to be a great platform for servicing the Hubble Space Telescope (thanks partly to a bad lens sent into orbit that triggered a series of servicing missions), a ferry to first the Mir then ISS, and a construction platform for that same ISS.
Some of the stars of the program include Dick Truly (later NASA administrator), Mark Kelly, Eileen Collins, Peggy Whitson, David Foale, and, of course, Story Musgrave. Musgrave is probably the most famous shuttle astronaut. He caught the public’s imagination with his historic spacewalks to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. What many people don’t know is that EVAs are nothing like what Leonov and Ed White did in the 1960s, two guys who free floated outside their spacecraft, mainly worried about getting back inside. (Leonov had to partially depressurize to fit back through his hatch.) Nor was it the gravity-assisted trips out onto the lunar surface. Many Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab astronauts had walked in space before the shuttle. But Musgrave and his crewmates spent huge amounts of time in the vacuum. Frostbite is a frequent danger, especially when working in shadow. Musgrave actually got frostbite in training while working in a vacuum chamber.
By the end of the shuttle program, there had been several female pilots, most notably Collins. She would also become the first female commander of a shuttle mission, or any American space mission. But the Shuttle Era also saw the first female chief astronaut, Peggy Whitson, whose job once belonged to Alan Shepard.
But there’s been a gap between the end of the Shuttle Era and this year’s planned debut of the manned version of the Space X Dragon. Since 2011, Americans have had to hitch rides on the Russian Soyuz craft, originally designed as a Soviet analog to Apollo. The venerable old craft has become a mature technology, even providing the basis for the Chinese Shenzou program, but America has no space transportation of its own. Nor is there a platform like the shuttle that will allow continued work on the International Space Station. This has caused a drop in morale at NASA and a brain drain as well. While Space X has proven it could privately build a space fleet cheaper than the overrun-addicted Lockheed-Martin, there are few flight controllers, spacecraft prep technicians, and astronauts left from the Shuttle and before. When Atlantis touched down for the last time in 2011, the ground crews, flight controllers, and astronauts had been part of an unbroken line that dated back to the X-1 and Century Series of planes at Edwards Air Force Base, dating back to Yeager’s supersonic flight in 1947. NASA is still in mourning and may not be satisfied with what Elon Musk has to offer.
The Shuttle was an end of an era.