Thoughts on the Last Flight of the Shuttle

By dennis_wingo
September 26, 2012
Filed under

I was at NASA Ames last week when the final flight of the final space shuttle Endeavour on its way to its final destination occurred. As many people did, I stood outside, on top of our MacMoon’s at Ames and took pictures. There were over 20,000 people at NASA Ames that waited hours for an event that took no more than one minute to consummate. Beyond that there were hundreds of thousands more people all around Silicon Valley who were outside and watching when the shuttle flew overhead.

They were on bridges, they were on the patio at Specialties Coffee with binoculars, they were pulled over on the 101 freeway, all to catch a last glimpse of a space shuttle, not even in space, but simply flying overhead on the back of a 747, the same way that we first saw the Enterprise in 1977. The same thing happened all over the country. Washington D.C. was almost shut down by the flight of Discovery coming into Dulles. Tens of thousands of people were wowed by the sight and image of two orbiters nose to nose on the tarmac. It is if Americans collectively all wanted to be a part of a history that many fear is passing us by….

I am the Shuttle Generation

The Time Before the First Launch

The Space Shuttle has been a part of my/our life for almost forty years now. Not like the people that designed them, built them and operated them, but part of my/our life none the less. As a kid I read the articles about why the Saturn V was giving way to a new and routine way of getting to space (naive child that I was) in the early 70’s. I read the articles about how we would be building space stations, deploying satellites, and constructing huge telescopes in orbit.

In 1976 I watched the news reports of the roll out of the Enterprise and its display at Edwards AFB with the crew of the fictional 23rd century starship Enterprise. In 1977 we saw on TV the captive carry and first free flights of the Enterprise at Edwards AFB. In 1979 I made a special trip to the cape to see the Enterprise, fully stacked on the launch pad as it was being used as a facilities fit check and test vehicle. I mourned with everyone else when I found out that the Enterprise was never going to fly, for what to some are still mysterious reasons. We also mourned in that year when we found out that because of the delays caused by problems with the SSME engine development, the shuttle would not be available to save Skylab, which then died in its death in fire over the Australian outback.

We worried in 1980 when reports of the continuing problems with the SSME development further pushed back the first launch. I read the Playboy article in late 1980 that went through all of the reasons that the first launch would fail, including faulty tiles, an unreliable APU, an untested system flying with humans, etc….

The First Launches

I did not get to see the first launch in person, but as part of the launch of a new life for myself, I watched the launch in a motel room in Tucson Arizona as I was moving to California to be involved in the computer industry. It was an amazing launch. Our generation who remembered the Saturn V launches were used to seeing the Saturn V lumber off the pad in slow motion, seeming to claw itself into the sky by brute force. The Shuttle virtually leapt off the pad, seemingly determined to prove its naysayers wrong. Watching for the first time the orbiter flying, the APU’s working, and the successful barely two day mission, everyone was waiting with anticipation for the landing. For the first time in Human history, the people of southern California heard the double boom…boom of the orbiter’s reentry that mildly shook houses for hundreds of miles and the picture perfect landing at Edwards AFB.

I did not get to see the first landing but I did see the landing of STS-4. We left work from Thousand Oaks CA late, not thinking that we would have any problems. However, when we got to Pear Blossom highway there was a massive 40 mile long traffic jam. As time was getting late we knew that we were not going to make it. We were in a small truck and drove on the sand for a while and made progress but got to a spot where we would have gotten stuck so we got back in line. At about this time four big 4×4’s came whizzing by on the wrong side of the road! Of course we got in behind them and were soon breezing by the slow moving traffic at 60 miles per hour. The lead truck had big CB antennas on it and when it would veer off to the left, off the road, the rest of us followed. This allowed the sparse oncoming traffic to go by while we continued forward! We did this for over 30 miles until we saw the base entry checkpoint ahead and got back in line.

We made it into the base literally five minutes before they closed the gates. This was still a couple of hours before landing and so we started playing. We saw a bunch of trucks driving out on the lake bed and joined them. About 20 minutes later a fully armed Huey helicopter came whizzing by and stopped us while the fully armed door gunner screamed at us to get the hell off the lake bed, didn’t we know the Shuttle was coming? We immediately left and drove to the viewing area, where about half a million of our closest friends were already there. Those early Shuttle landings were a huge party and we all waited for the landing while buying food, and drink and generally raising merry hell. Since the lake bed area was so large we still were able to get a good viewing site across the lake bed where president Reagan was also waiting for the landing. His reviewing stand was really neat, being between two hangers with our old friend, the Shuttle Enterprise behind the stand.

We were warned that the Shuttle was on the way in and started looking for it. The announcer was calling out over loudspeakers the progress. I first saw Columbia when she was still about 105,000 feet up in altitude and the belly of the orbiter was still glowing a dull orange. From that instant until she landed across from us it was no more than an amazing five minutes. The orbiter was sitting on the tarmac very close to where Reagan and the other dignitaries were waiting. Then another amazing thing happened! As Reagan was speaking the 747 showed up again, this time carrying the Shuttle Challenger on its back! As it flew over, for a brief moment, we saw three orbiters together in one thrilling view.

The Early Years

The early years of the Shuttle program were perhaps its most innovative. From launch and rescuing communications satellites to the recovery and repair of NASA’s Solar Max, exciting and ground breaking missions were the norm. On the flight where Solar Max was rescued (STS 41C) and repaired NASA deployed the LDEF materials in space 21,300 bus, and the shuttle went to a then record of 300 nautical miles altitude using a direct ascent trajectory.

Science missions flew using the European built Spacelab module in the cargo bay with materials and life sciences experiments. Spacelab components flew on a total of 22 shuttle missions over its lifetime. On other missions orbital assembly experiments were performed such as the EASE/ACCESS where large truss assemblies were built as a test for the future space station. The materials sciences experiments were very exciting to industry and the first non government employee, Charles Walker, flew twice as a payload specialist for McDonnell Douglas.

Student experiments were first flown in space in the Getaway Special Program where payloads are flown in the cargo bay in a self contained experimental system that replaced ballast that would normally be used to balance the orbiter. Dozens of these payloads were eventually flown and many students who built them are now senior professionals in the space industry.

On a minor note the Shuttle could be very annoying. During that era it landed often in California at Edwards Air Force base. It would usually land early in the morning. I was living in Thousand Oaks California at the time and the mission frequency was high enough that the double sonic booms of its reentry would wake me up in the morning to not very charitable thoughts about it doing so.

The first seeds of NASA’s problems also came in this era. NASA was jealous of its hardware and rejected out of hand the proposal from Rockwell International to build a fifth orbiter that would be owned by and flown by Rockwell. Problems with the Shuttle system itself were found but not corrected during this era that eventually led to the first shuttle tragedy.


Just about everyone can remember where they were at when we lost the Challenger on that cold January morning in 1986. I was in a computer room in Morristown, New Jersey when a computer operator ran in to tell us about it. A group of us left and went to a local bar to watch replay after replay of the explosion that took seven fine lives, including the first teacher in space from us. President Reagan’s eloquent eulogy of the crew helped a shocked nation to help heal the loss. The Shuttle program was never the same after that.

My own closer affiliation with the Shuttle program began during the stand down after Challenger. I wanted to work closer to the space program and finally get my degree after working as a non degreed engineer for several years. I left the computer industry to move back to Alabama to enroll at the University of Alabama in Huntsville where I figured I could get work related to the space program and get my degree. I worked at a small company in Huntsville Alabama that built a computer that had a telemetry system that would process the data stream from the SSME’s during launch. This system was going into the firing room at the cape and it was fought tooth and nail by the people down there who were quite happy with their ModComp computers and did not like these newfangled microprocessors.

The Second Age of the Shuttle

When the first launch of the Shuttle happened after Challenger in 1988 with the Shuttle Discovery. I was able to get a seat in the Morris auditorium at NASA MSFC building 4200 as I had worked on the return to flight. It was full to overflowing and it seemed that everyone held their breaths when the “go at throttle up” command came from the CAPCOM. A huge cheer range out when the solid rocket boosters separated from the stack after two and a half minutes. No one moved though until the SSME’s finally shut down and we knew that the orbiter was going to make it to orbit.

There were still a lot of cool missions though the flight rate never approached the nine flights of 1985. I flew my first payload on the Shuttle on STS-46 with a MacIntosh computer interfaced to a microgravity measurement system that I designed called 3DMA. This mission deployed the European EURECA free flying platform and deployed (unsuccessfully) the Italian TSS-1 20 km tether. At this time I was learning about tethers and we were slated to fly a small satellite on a 20 km tether later in the decade on STS-85. We flew more payloads as I was working the Consortium for Materials Development in Space (CMDS) at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. We flew our 3DMA payload on the first quasi-commercial module on the Shuttle from SpaceHab. We learned about the politics of the Shuttle, how to work with the safety panel in Houston and the various rivalries between the NASA centers involved in the Shuttle program. After our small satellite was moved off of the Shuttle and flown on a Delta II in 1998 I began to move away from the Shuttle program.

The Shuttle program did several more firsts, including a launch to high inclination out of Florida that went right up the east coast of the U.S. The TSS-1R mission flew, and the tether broke at 19.5 kilometers, but not before confirming the viability of using tethers to generate electrical power in space. The historic first docking of the Space Shuttle to the MIR space station happened in this timeframe as well. The long delayed Hubble space telescope was finally lofted into orbit in 1990 and found to have a badly ground mirror, it was the shuttle to the rescue with a modified optical system. By the time of the fifth Hubble servicing mission in 2009 the telescope was virtually rebuilt in its entire power system, electronics, guidance, and scientific instruments.

It was during this era that I finally got to see some launches. I saw STS-40 from a highway overpass near Coca Beach. I saw STS-46 with my hardware take off from the VIP stands. All together I got to see at least four launches and three additional scrubs of launches. There was one launch that was especially memorable. There was a hold due to weather for too many clouds in the area of the launch site, which would cause problems if there was an abort to launch site scenario. There was near constant chatter with the weather officer about a possible break in the clouds. Finally the break happened and the hold at 9 minutes was lifted and it seemed that the launch team rushed to get the Shuttle launched. The Shuttle lifted off in a hole in the clouds that almost immediately closed back in. Fortunately no abort was needed but you could just tell from the sounds of the voices from the CAPCOM and launch control that they were not going to let a few clouds stop the launch that day.

The Station Era

As the redesigned International Space Station (ISS) began to be a reality the Shuttle program became fun again. The crew persons who actually were involved in the construction of the station were able to gain new and valuable skills and for the first time in human history, half a million pounds of hardware in space, most of it carried up in the orbiters became our first outpost in space. The Shuttle was very well qualified for this task and the combination of the Shuttle remote manipulator and the station remote manipulator made a powerful combination for the successful construction in space of large platforms.


By the time of the loss of Columbia on STS-107 I no longer had the small pit in my stomach for the landing. To see it disintegrate over the Texas skies was as shocking as the loss of Challenger. The aftermath was even more painful as the distinct impression was had that we should have caught this one while she was flying. The loss of corporate knowledge when Boeing bought Rockwell and moved the people from California to Texas was wrenching when you read that the engineer who created the program to assess damage to the tiles (who refused to move to Texas and left Rockwell) stated that it was never intended to be used in the way it was used during STS-107. The testing afterward of the RCC panels from the venerable Shuttle Enterprise that showed their fragility shocked everyone who saw it.

The Third and Final Act

The Shuttle returned to flight quicker this time. A controversial rule was adopted that would have precluded the Shuttle being used to service the Hubble telescope one last time that was reversed in 2005 by incoming administrator Mike Griffin. The last servicing mission was in 2009 and it was the final flight to a non station destination. With the station completed in late 2010 and with no further payloads in the pipeline it seemed the logical decision to terminate the program and move onward.

What Could Have Been

Politicians love to say that no one cares about space. The literally millions of people who stopped and clogged highways in Washington, the Bay Area and Los Angeles might disagree with you. Americans love space. To use an out of vogue phrase, we have seen it as our manifest destiny and have since that July day in 1969 when mankind of the American flavor set foot on the Moon. The Shuttle was originally supposed to help us get back to the Moon with the construction of the station and of space vehicles that could go from low Earth Orbit to the Moon. One of my favorite lunar lander designs from Boeing, as illustrated by Paul Hudson in the late 1980’s was a dual engine vehicle that would have been carried into orbit by the Shuttle.

The Shuttle was a heavy lift vehicle that we threw away, just like we threw away the Saturn V. The Shuttle was never perfect and it never reached its full potential but every time it launched it carried more than a quarter of a million pounds of hardware into orbit and most of it came back.

Several proposals were made for Shuttle system upgrades that should have happened but did not. One proposal was to go to electromechanical actuators for all of the moving parts of the orbiter such as the SSME’s and flight surfaces. This would have eliminated the hydraulic system and the hydrazine powered APU’s in favor of an upgraded fuel cell system. This would have cut costs and time for turn around dramatically. Another proposal was to get rid of the bipropellant Orbital Maneuvering Engines and replace them with more powerful LOX/Methane engines. This would have improved performance and cut the turn around time further. A companion upgrade would have swapped out all of the RCS thrusters on the orbiter with the same LOX/Methane system. This would have eliminated toxic propellants from the Orbiter and would have also cut the time, effort, and cost to turn around the system. There was a proposal from as far back as 1977 to add solar arrays that could be deployed on orbit and married to a regenerative fuel cell system that would have extended the time on orbit to near indefinitely.

There were ideas floating about by some to keep an orbiter on orbit at the station to provide extra living space and a construction facility for large space structures at the station. Atlantis was already modified to accept power from the station and thus could have, with some further modifications, have remained at the station. This would have caused other problems with the station but none that were unsolvable.

The Legacy

It is amazing to think now that the last flight of the Shuttle was barely a year ago (from September 2012). With the completion of the station, the Shuttle did not seem to have a purpose anymore. Though many proposals were made for a smooth transition to a quasi-heavy lift Shuttle C, none of the proposals made it past the desire by NASA for a really big shiny new heavy lifter, damn the cost involved and damn the loss of now 35 plus years of operational experience with manned spaceflight.

Was it worth it? The answer to me is yes, if we learn the lessons that the Shuttle program taught us. From the amazing success of the process of orbital assembly that brought together modules from Europe, Russia, Japan, and the United States and put them into a successful half million pound space station, to the satellite servicing missions and microgravity research, the Shuttle does have a proud legacy of accomplishment.

The biggest problem today, is like what we did in the aftermath of the Apollo era, we seem bound and determined to forget the lessons of the Shuttle program. NASA chose a capsule for a renewed exploration program when the lesson of the Apollo program was that they were very expensive throw away systems. Say what you will but if the Shuttle program had thrown away all of those expensive engines every flight the cost would have been much higher. Most of the Shuttle’s high cost came due to the low flight rate. Even in the mid 1990’s the marginal cost of a Shuttle mission was only about $120 million dollars, quite a deal to put a quarter of a million pounds of hardware into space. The Space Launch System advocates claim that each of those missions will only cost $500 million each. This is a rank fantasy as the Saturn V launches cost $400 million each 40 years ago. It is interesting that this number is probably the marginal launch cost. The infrastructure and overhead cost is what kills you and there is little indication that they are going to save a lot of money there compared to the Shuttle. Throwing away all of your hardware each mission is insane but that is what NASA wants to go back to for the future.

The Fly Over

It was truly amazing the number of people who came out to NASA Ames for the flyover. I was at my office at 7:00 am and there were already people there waiting for something that was not going to happen until ten o’clock. By the time of the flyover there were over 20,000 people waiting there at Ames for this event. There were hundreds of thousands of other people that took a break from their jobs to do likewise all across Silicon Valley and the rest of California. Americans love the Shuttle. Many amazing things were done with them and we mourned together for those whose lives were lost in them.

There is a deep urge in this country to support the exploration and development of space. To build a space program around making the solar system the province of a few government employees, around doing a few science experiments, is not what we as a nation signed up for in the 1950’s. We want more from our space program than what the narrow view of NASA has provided. NASA fought space tourism tooth and nail. It killed the idea of a privately built and operated orbiter in the 1980’s and today is fixated on a rocket to no where, with no payloads and no destination within the remaining lives of those who first walked on the Moon. This is a national tragedy and one that if the government will not get beyond, we will.