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Five Years Ago, These Lucky Southwest Passengers Saw A Space Shuttle Launch From the Air


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A rare view of one of the last Space Shuttle launches and a look back at the history of the most unique aerospace program.

We’re approaching the five-year anniversary of the completion of the final Space Shuttle mission. The video that accompanies this story was shot from the window of Southwest Flight 0921 on May 14, 2010, captures the launch from Cape Canaveral, FL., of one of the final missions.

For two decades, NASA’s Space Shuttle program once again proved that the United States could be a leader in space exploration. The first mission was launched on April 21, 1981 and the last flight touched down at Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011.

The first flight was a bit of a gamble and has been called “the boldest test flight in history.”

“On a long list of firsts one stunning fact stands out,” a NASA official said at the time. “It was the first time in history a new spacecraft was launched on its maiden voyage with a crew aboard.”

And John Young, who commanded that first flight that included only pilot Robert Crippen, summed it up this way: “Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fueled system in the world; knowing they’re going to light the bottom and doesn’t get a little worried does not fully understand the situation.”

Some facts and figures of the Space Shuttle program:

  • The Shuttle fleet’s total mission time was 1322 days, 19 hours, 21 minutes and 23 seconds.
  • Shuttles participated in 135 missions, launching satellites, interplanetary probes, the Hubble Space Telescope and helped construct and service the International Space Station.
  • The total cost of the program was an estimated $209 billion.
  • The cost of each launch/mission ranged from $405 million to $1.5 billion.
  • Five Shuttles were built and sent into orbit around the Earth: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour.

Tragically, two of those shuttles were lost before they could complete missions.

On Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch due to the failure of the right SRB. The incident was particularly tragic because one of the seven astronauts who died, Christa McAuliffe, was to be the first teacher in space. Hundreds of classrooms around the country witnessed the disaster on television via live coverage of the loss.

Columbia disintegrated during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003 and all seven crew members perished. An investigation concluded that the leading edge of a wing had been punctured during launch. The heat of re-entry penetrated the wing and led to Columbia breaking up over the Southwestern United States.

Endeavour, which was built to replace Challenger, will be on display at the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center, which is in its construction phase. Recently, folks in Los Angeles were treated to the only remaining flight-qualified external tank from the Space Shuttle program being ground-transported to join Endeavour and be part of the eventual display. The fuel tank was donated by NASA.

The transporting of that fuel tank will likely be one of the last times that a part of a Space Shuttle moves more than a few feet.

Discovery is displayed at the Udvar-Hazy Smithsonian Museum at Dulles.  Atlantis is on display at the Kennedy Space Center

Written by Wendell Barnhouse

Wendell Barnhouse is a veteran journalist with over 40 years of experience as a writer and an editor. For the last 30 years, he wrote about college sports but he has had an interest and curiosity about aviation since he was in grade school.