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What A Magnificent Craft She Was: The Space Shuttle On Approach

It was a maintenance and resource hog, but wow…was she beautiful to watch.

Discovery touches down at Edwards AFB on STS-128. Photo: NASA

It’s hard to believe that we are approaching 7 years since America launched its own human-carrying craft into space.  The last Space Shuttle mission landed on July 21, 2011.  Since that date, Americans must rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station.  Getting there isn’t cheap. The Russians charge almost $60M per seat!  America is still officially scheduled to return to human spaceflight in 2018.  But recent certification delays of Space X’s and Boeing’s capsules have called into question whether any human-carrying commercial operations will happen next year.

While the Space Shuttle never truly lived up to its promises, it was a truly beautiful space craft to watch.  The Shuttle had an approach unlike any other.  When it descended from the heavens, it fell like a rock. The shuttle had a 15-20 degree nose low deck angle. That’s 5-7 times steeper than your typical commercial airliner on descent.  The descent was unpowered too, with only a set of APUs to power the critical systems and flight controls.  On final approach, the shuttle continued its steep dive and only gracefully lifted its nose at the last second. The shuttle’s pilot then lowered the gear, as the commander flared just before touch down.  Early arrivals of the shuttle were met with much fanfare.  But this one of Discovery touching down at Edwards in 2009 barely received a few seconds of airtime on the local news.  Shuttle landings were never routine but they became common.  Now they are becoming a distant memory.

Why did we stop flying the space shuttle?

Many people will ask, why aren’t we still flying the space shuttle?  That’s a good question!  The Space Shuttle was a magnificent piece of engineering but it never fully lived up to its hype.  First of all, the shuttle was dangerous.  Two hull losses in just over 100 flights is not a good track record.

Shuttle tiles were effective but delicate. Photo: NASA

Decisions made in the 1970s to cut costs were leading to added risks to the program that couldn’t be solved or rectified.  Money ‘saving’ decisions like the solid-rocket boosters or SRBs meant that we had no way to turn off the giant motors once lit.  Engineers adapted and overcame but the risk was ever-present.  Because the shuttle was mounted on the side of the stack, the craft would always be susceptible to foam and ice damage on liftoff.  Other technologies like the individual thermal protection tiles were insanely delicate and prone to cracking.  This all added up to a vehicle that was amazing but risky.  Every flight was a test flight.

Will we ever see another Space Shuttle?

Probably not.  Many engineers and enthusiasts see the space shuttle as a deviation from the progress that NASA was making in the 1950s and 1960s.  The Shuttle was only capable of low earth orbit.  It was heavy, expensive to maintain, and diverted billions of dollars away from projects that could’ve established a permanent presence on the Moon or Mars.  While we will probably never see such a complex hybrid-rocket/space plane again.  Projects like the forthcoming Dream Chaser and the Air Force’s secretive X-37 will mean that spacecraft that land like a plane will continue to be invested in and developed.

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