NASA and its contractors mull over a report outlining an ambitious (and, considering the continuous delays to the first launch of the Space Shuttle program, overly optimistic) plan to reactivate and occupy the Apollo-era space station Skylab for use by shuttle crews. The plan involves outfitting the ailing station with new solar power panels and equipment, and performing repairs to make it habitable for future astronauts. Despite the best-laid plans, however, the shuttle’s first launch comes after Skylab tumbles back through Earth’s atmosphere.
With a newly-awarded NASA contract in hand, Rockwell International begins the process of converting Space Shuttle Structural Test Article 099 into the Orbiter Vehicle 099, later to be christened Space Shuttle Challenger. A process originally envisioned for the test vehicle Enterprise, it is deemed more cost-effective and faster to upgrade STA-099 into OV-099. The first order of business is the construction of a new crew module, since the corresponding section of STA-099 was never actually intended to house human beings.
After several years of referring to the various Space Shuttle orbiters both under construction and in planning by numbers, NASA bestows names upon the anticipated fleet of four orbiters. OV-102, which is still expected to fly “late this year”, is named Columbia, while OV-099, undergoing conversion from a test article to flight-worthy vehicle, is named Challenger. Orbiters 103 and 104 will be named, respectively, Discovery and Atlantis; all four names are drawn from historical seafaring exploration vessels. (NASA has also used some of the names before: Columbia was the name of the moon-orbiting command module in the Apollo 11 mission, while Apollo 17’s lunar lander was named Challenger.)
Space Shuttle Columbia is officially rolled out of the Rockwell International construction facility in Palmdale, California, even though her outer “skin” is still unfinished – NASA technicians continue working on perfecting the first spaceworthy shuttle’s thermal tiles for much of the next year, delaying the first launch until sometime in 1981 (just another in a series of delays for a vehicle that had been intended to fly as early as 1977).
The Space Shuttle Enterprise, a full-sized, full-weight test article not intended for orbital flight, is mated to an external tank and a pair of solid rocket boosters and rolled out to Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral for engineering fit-checks of the redesigned launch pad (a hand-me-down from the Apollo era, where the same pad had launched all but one of the Saturn V rockets). Enterprise remains on the pad for over a month, providing the first photo opportunity of the full-size shuttle launch stack in all of its glory.
With NASA anticipating ramping up its launch schedule to more than one shuttle flight per month to meet demand for the vehicle’s unique satellite deployment and retrieval capabilities, construction begins on the third orbiter intended for spaceflight, Space Shuttle Discovery. Construction and checking of the third shuttle takes almost exactly four years, with Discovery’s first liftoff about a year later.
Construction begins on what is intended to be the fourth and final member of the current Space Shuttle fleet, Atlantis. With four orbiters in service, NASA will be one step closer to the routine, almost-weekly schedule of orbital flights envisioned in the Nixon-era mandate for the shuttle. Refinements and improvements in the process of constructing the shuttle fleet make Atlantis the lightest shuttle to date, over three tons lighter than Columbia.
For the first time in the history of the delay-riddled Space Shuttle program, a complete, flight-ready vehicle is rolled out to the launch pad. Space Shuttle Columbia, atop the modified crawler vehicle which once carried Saturn V rockets to the pad, arrives at Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 39A, strapped to flight-qualified solid rocket boosters and a flight-ready external tank. (The shuttle Enterprise had been attached to empty boosters and tanks for fit checks as early as 1979.) Though preparation work continues to ready Columbia for flight, the shuttle is now in position for her first launch in 1981.
The first attempt to launch Space Shuttle Columbia on her maiden voyage is called off due to problems with the shuttle’s sophisticated system of redundant flight computers, some of which fail to synchronize with each other during the countdown. Over 24 hours are required to fix the bug, and the launch is delayed by two days.
Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off on the shuttle system’s first flight into a space, with Commander John Young (a Gemini/Apollo veteran) and Robert Crippen aboard, the first two-man American crew since the Gemini program’s final flight in 1966. It’s a true test flight in every sense of the word – every previous American manned spacecraft had been flown unmanned first to verify safety and spaceworthiness, making the shuttle’s first flight a case where everything has to go perfectly the first time.
Safely in orbit, the cargo bay doors are opened for the first time on Space Shuttle Columbia, revealing that some of the shuttle’s protective thermal tiles are already missing. (A later post-landing inspection reveals that more than 100 tiles are damaged, and 16 tiles are completely lost, all probably due to unexpected vibration during launch.) NASA deems the damage non-critical and gives the go-ahead for a landing, even though it’s impossible to see what damage may have been done to the more critical tiles on the shuttle’s underbelly.
The first shuttle to return from space, Columbia touches down on the dry lake bed strip at Edwards Air Force Base in California, two days and six hours after liftoff (and after putting a cool million miles on the odometer). The aerodynamics involved in gliding after re-entry are found to be trickier than the previous test landings of the Enterprise. Inspection of the thermal tiles lining the shuttle’s belly reveals more damage than expected, and NASA begins working to refine the process of fitting the tiles to the shuttle.
The second launch of Space Shuttle Columbia gets an unexpected one-month delay when a fuel leak forces NASA to remove, clean and re-attach 300 thermal tiles. The work can be done on-site, so Columbia simply stays on the pad. The second launch will be the last for the white external fuel tank, since NASA has determined that its brown insulating foam layer will cause no problems if left exposed; leaving off the coat of white paint saves several hundred pounds.
For the first time in history, a space vehicle returns to space for a second complete mission. Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off on its second test flight, with another two-man crew consisting of Joe Engle and Richard Truly, the first all-rookie American space crew since the last Skylab flight. Refinements to various systems are to be tested on this mission, as well as the first use of the remote manipulator arm, upon which nearly all claims of the shuttle’s ability to deploy, retrieve and repair satellites rest.
Key to NASA’s claim that the Space Shuttle will be able to deploy, retrieve and repair satellites is the Canadian-built remote manipulator arm system (or “Canadarm”), a project first contracted in 1975 and making its first appearance on Columbia‘s second flight. During tests, the arm performs exactly as expected, and proves to be absolutely vital to many future shuttle missions. The Canadian Space Agency and its subcontractors quickly receive further orders – a Canadarm for every shuttle in the fleet. Fuel cell problems shorten Columbia’s mission from five days to two days, but the crew still accomplishes most of the planned objectives and experiments.
At Rockwell International, a spare Space Shuttle crew module is assembled alongside components intended for the orbiters Discovery and Atlantis, and though the spare isn’t intended for a specific shuttle yet to be built, it will find a purpose in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster: the spare crew module will become one of many completed shuttle spares that will eventually be assembled in the late 1980s as the Space Shuttle Endeavour, Challenger’s replacement and the last space shuttle constructed.
The testing phase of the shuttle program continues as Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off for her third flight into space. With Commander Jack Lousma and Pilot C. Gordon Fullerton aboard, Columbia stays in orbit for over a week, testing the orbiter’s endurance to heat at different angles to the sun, as well as testing the unmanned Spacelab experiment pallets in the cargo bay. This is the first shuttle flight to end on the contingency landing site at White Sands, New Mexico.
Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off for the fourth and final shuttle “test flight” before NASA’s Space Transportation System is declared fully operational. Remaining in orbit for a full week, Commander Ken Mattingly and Pilot Henry Hartsfield deliver the shuttle program’s first payload for the Department of Defense, as well as some of the first student-submitted experiment packages flown in the shuttle program. Both of Columbia’s solid rocket boosters, which are considered a reusable part of the launch vehicle, are lost at sea when their parachutes fail to deploy after separation and the boosters slam into the Atlantic Ocean; neither of the rockets are able to be recovered.
Completely refitted from a lightweight airframe originally fabricated for stress, vibration and thermal testing, Space Shuttle Challenger is rolled out of her Rockwell International assembly plant in Palmdale, California. Experience gained in the construction of Challenger’s sister ship, Columbia, means that the second completed shuttle in the fleet is over one ton lighter than Columbia. Challenger would make her first flight in just under a year.
Space Shuttle Columbia lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California, making its first-ever landing on a concrete runway. After greeting the returning astronauts and inspecting the shuttle, President Ronald Reagan – with the partially-dismantled prototype Enterprise as a backdrop – declares NASA’s Space Shuttle system fully operational, saying “the test flights are over.” Columbia Commander Ken Mattingly later reveals that there was tremendous pressure on NASA to land Columbia on Independence Day, regardless of how many mission objectives had been met, to maximize the publicity value of the President’s speech. But the quick turnaround time and almost-weekly flight schedule that NASA had publicized throughout the 1970s is already a pipe dream: post-mission the four missions flown so far prove that post-landing servicing of each orbiter takes longer than expected. Columbia won’t fly again until the first “operational” mission in November.
On the first fully-operational flight of NASA’s Space Transportation System, Space Shuttle Columbia delivers two commercial satellites to orbit, the Canadian Anik C-3 satellite and an American satellite, SitS-C. Aboard Columbia for this flight is the first four-astronaut crew in NASA’s history, consisting of Commander Vance Brand, Pilot Robert Overmyer, and mission specialists Joseph Allen and William Lenoir. The flight lasts five days before a landing at Edwards Air Force Base.
Space Shuttle Challenger lifts off into orbit for the first time, after extensive technical and mechanical issues keep the shuttle on the pad well past its original January launch date. The payload for this flight is NASA’s own TDRS (Tracking & Data Relay Satellite), designed to keep the shuttle in constant contact with ground controllers even if its orbit takes it out of direct communications. The five-day flight also sees the first spacewalk of the shuttle program. Challenger’s crew consists of Commander Paul Weitz, Pilot Karol Bobko, and mission specialists Donald Peterson and Story Musgrave.
The second flight of Space Shuttle Challenger is a six-day mission to launch two more communications satellites (one for Canada and one for Indonesia), as well as featuring the first American woman in space (20 years behind the Soviet Union’s launch of Valentina Tereshkova). Challenger’s crew for this flight consists of Commander Robert Crippen, Pilot Frederick Hauck, and mission specialists John Fabian, Sally Ride and Norm Thagard.
Taking off on a six-day satellite deployment mission, Space Shuttle Challenger also lifts the first African-American astronaut into orbit. A satellite deployment is carried out for India, along with continuing experiments to observe the performance of the shuttle in conditions of extreme cold with limited exposure to the sun. Aboard Challenger for this flight are Commander Richard Truly, Pilot Daniel Brandenstein, and mission specialists Dale Gardner, Guion Bluford, and William Thornton.
Activision releases the Space Shuttle cartridge for the Atari 2600 home video game system, an attempt to do a realistic flight simulator on limited hardware. Many of the console’s option switches – normally used to toggle difficulty levels, color or black & white graphics, and so on – are used for in-game functions instead.