Rare photos show the early years of NASA’s space shuttle era

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Written by Jacopo Prisco, CNN

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NASA’s first space shuttle was to be called Constitution – a nod to America’s bicentennial that year. But a campaign written by “Star Trek” fans prompted President Gerald Ford to change his mind.

Instead, the orbiter was called Enterprise, like the starship from the TV show. This is why members of the “Star Trek” cast and crew, including Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Gene Roddenberry, could be seen among the crowds at the shuttle unveiling in September 1976.

They can also be seen, sporting a typical 1970s dress style, in one of 450 never-before-seen and rarely seen images featured in University Press Florida. new book, “Representation of the Space Shuttle: The Early Years.” The publication chronicles the shuttle program from 1965 to 1982, ending barely a year after the spacecraft began operational life.

Former astronaut Deke Slayton, head of the shuttle’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT) program, described three upcoming “captive-active” phase flights at a press conference in April 1977, while Milt Reim, head of business audience of the Johnson Space Center, looks in the background. Credit: Nasa

“Most of the shuttle books that are available try to do too much and cover the whole agenda,” co-author John Bisney said in a telephone interview. “And when you have 135 flights over 30 years, it’s hard to condense into one book.”

Bisney’s book, which he co-authored with JL Pickering, instead offers a unique view of the early developments of the Shuttle, the world’s first reusable spacecraft, with a plethora of bizarre sketches and drawings of designs. alternatives – some of which still look remarkably futuristic.

“Some of the early concepts involved the booster rocket coming back and landing automatically like an airplane,” Bisney said. “Unfortunately, it turned out to be quite complicated.”

The Columbia in 1979, ready to fly on a Boeing 747, formerly owned by American Airlines (hence the livery).  Some of its tiles were damaged, as visible, during a previous test flight behind the aircraft.

The Columbia in 1979, ready to fly on a Boeing 747, formerly owned by American Airlines (hence the livery). Some of its tiles were damaged, as visible, during a previous test flight behind the aircraft. Credit: Nasa

Instead, the thrusters splashed into the ocean after separating from the shuttle, to be retrieved and refurbished. A modern rocket like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has booster rockets that can autonomously descend to Earth and land.

The shuttle – officially called STS, or Space Transportation System – first flew into space on April 12, 1981, with the distinction of not having been tested with an unmanned launch first. Astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen piloted the Columbia Orbiter for 54 hours before landing safely on Earth. The timeline of the book ends after the fourth space shuttle mission, a test flight that paved the way for operational missions.

Most of the photos are from the Pickering Personal Archives, one of the world’s largest private collections of images of human spaceflight.

“I give (Pickering) all the credit, and yes, he had a lot of work to do,” Bisney said. “But one of our hallmarks is focusing on unusual, rarely seen, or unseen images. If you go to the library and pull a book off the shuttle, you usually see the same hundreds of images in every book. . And that’s understandable, because they’re great photos. But there’s a lot more to show you, ”

STS-2 on the evening of November 11, 1981. This was the last time the shuttle launched with a white external tank;  the paint was removed for subsequent flights to avoid unnecessary weight.

STS-2 on the evening of November 11, 1981. This was the last time the shuttle launched with a white external tank; the paint was removed for subsequent flights to avoid unnecessary weight. Credit: Nasa

The sense of anticipation surrounding the shuttle program, which transported American astronauts into space for the first time since the Apollo-Soyuz test project in 1975, is palpable in many images. The STS was retired in 2011, with five orbiters built (only four of which flew into space) and two lost in crashes, in 1986 and 2003, with a collective loss of 14 lives.

“When you have 135 missions, it’s terrible to lose two. But spaceflight is a risky business,” Bisney said. “I don’t think it’s going to be as routine a day as some people think it is.”

Related Video: Why NASA’s Space Shuttle Was So Revolutionary

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On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger shattered after 73 seconds of flight, killing all seven people on board. Following the disaster, NASA grounded the shuttle for two and a half years as the agency tried to emerge from one of the worst periods in its history. The explosion was caused by the infamous O-ring, a rubber seal that helped hold the rocket thrusters and the external fuel tank in place. Once the ring failed, due to freezing weather the night before launch, the outer tank exploded. This design flaw, and NASA’s failure to address it, is carefully dissected in this powerful four-part Netflix documentary, with unprecedented access to the families of those involved.

To concern: “The Space Shuttle” (2011)

This full documentary is free to watch on the official NASA YouTube channel and is narrated by none other than William Shatner, the original “Star Trek” Captain Kirk. It offers a comprehensive view of the shuttle program’s technology and mission setup, with NASA personnel providing first-person perspectives.

Read: “Wings in orbit” (2011)

The full story of the NASA Shuttle Program is free to read online or download. With an emphasis on science and engineering, he leverages the agency’s vast human resources and unprecedented photo library.

To concern: “For all mankind” (2019)

This Apple TV + Cold War story space drama imagines a hypothetical timeline in which the Soviets first landed on the moon. The second season features a fictional spacecraft called the Pathfinder (referencing an early mock-up model of the Shuttle, as well as a subsequent Martian mission of the same name), with nuclear engines and a sleeker, more menacing look. It is equipped with weapons and can be seen happily walking to the moon – an impossibility for real shuttles, which were never designed to leave Earth’s orbit.

The quintessential tabletop book on NASA history, this volume contains an expansive chapter on the Space Shuttle program, with stunning large-format photographs accompanied by essays written by commanders and mission specialists at NASA . The rest of the book covers all the milestones of NASA’s first 60 years of operation (1958 to 2018), with over 400 images in total.

Top image: Robert Crippen and John Young aboard the Columbia in 1980.


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