The Vehicle Assembly Building

Vehicle Assembly BuildingConstruction commences on NASA’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building (originally named the Vertical Assembly Building), where the giant Saturn V rockets for Apollo lunar missions will be constructed, tested, and then rolled out to the launch pad atop huge mobile crawlers. Covering eight acres of land on Merritt Island, Florida, the building must withstand Florida’s notorious hurricane seasons (and protect any rockets under construction within) as well as the shockwaves of Saturn V rocket launches taking place only three miles away; special ventilation and humidity control systems have to be built as well, as the interior space is so voluminous that the building has its own internal weather! The VAB will later transition to the assembly of the Space Shuttle launch system elements and the Space Launch System boosters for the 21st century Orion program.

Vehicle Assembly Building open for business

Vehicle Assembly BuildingNASA’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building is completed at the spaceport rapidly taking shape on Cape Canaveral ahead of the Apollo lunar missions. Topped off at a total cost of $117,000,000, the VAB is where Saturn V rockets are assembled for the Apollo moonshots, and the huge, eight-acre building will later transition to the assembly of the Space Shuttle launch system elements and the Space Launch System boosters for the 21st century Orion program.

NASA solicits shuttle, station proposals

Space ShuttleNASA formally asks various major players in the aerospace industry for proposals for what the agency sees as its two major projects for the 1970s: an orbiting space station and a reusable Space Shuttle to make routine flights from Earth to the station – which NASA hopes will be a “50 man space base” – and back again, with supplies, experiments, and new crew members. (Within mere weeks, the hypothetical station’s equally hypothetical crew will be downsized to a dozen.) In the event that the development curve on the Space Shuttle proves to be a long one, NASA says it will keep Apollo and even Gemini spacecraft in service to make flights to the station.

Shuttle thermal protection system chosen

Space Shuttle concept artPotential contractors for NASA’s upcoming Space Shuttle offer specs based on their final design studies, which still assume that the shuttle’s giant booster will be a manned, winged vehicle in its own right that will return to a runway on Earth after its fuel is used up. One thing that both studies suggest, however, is an aluminum airframe which requires a shift away from the ablative metallic heat shields of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. A system of carbon-reinforced “shingles” is suggested as an alternative, and is approved by NASA, though developing the technology to create, install and maintain these tiles delays the first Shuttle launch into the 1980s, and the tiles are still prone to damage during both launch and re-entry – a weakness that will eventually seal the end of the Space Shuttle era.

The Space Transportation System

Space ShuttlePresident Richard Nixon announces that, after three years of studies, design concepts, and deliberations, he has given NASA the go-ahead to develop a reusable space vehicle, the Space Shuttle, which can perform multiple mission profiles, land safely and launch again, with the eventual goal of launching a shuttle almost every week of the year. The contract to build the shuttle is awarded to Apollo command/service module contractor North American Aviation, which is later to complete a merger with Rockwell International, which assumes the task of building the shuttles. The first launch date is projected to take place at some point in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Solid rocket boosters picked for shuttle

Shuttle on a Saturn VAfter a five-month design study focusing on alternatives to a winged (and manned) reusable first stage bosoter for the upcoming Space Shuttle, NASA settles on a configuration consisting of two solid rocket boosters strapped to the shuttle’s external fuel tank. Among the alternatives considered was the possibility of restarting production of the Saturn V rockets that launched Apollo and Skylab missions, with the shuttle and its fuel tank separating from the Saturn V’s first stage at high altitude (though in this configuration, a failure of the shuttle’s main engines would prove to be catastrophic). The SRB/tank configuration is expected to shave half a billion dollars off of the shuttle’s development costs.

Apollo: the Shuttle’s lifeboat?

Space Shuttle with Apollo capsuleSpace shuttle contractor North American Rockwell submits a safety study to NASA concerning safety and escape systems for the upcoming space shuttle, including a study of smaller vehicles with potential use as “lifeboats” in the event that a shuttle is unfit for return to Earth due to heat shield or other catastrophic damage. The various proposals, which include the possibility of permanently berthing an Apollo command module (another vehicle contracted to North American Rockwell) in the shuttle’s cargo bay for use as a lifeboat, are rejected by NASA due to the impact that each proposal would have on available space and weight for cargo.

Enterprise in drydock

EnterpriseConstruction begins on OV-101, a Space Shuttle intended for extensive atmospheric test flight and landings without ever going into space. Originally intended to bear the name Constitution, a letter-writing campaign by Star Trek fans convinces President Gerald Ford to request that NASA rename the first shuttle Enterprise. Much of the first shuttle’s structural details are simply dummy models of the correct shape and weight; her engines are never intended to fire. Though plans are drawn up to convert Enterprise into a space-worthy vehicle, they are never carried out: it’s deemed cheaper and faster to upgrade a structural test model of the shuttle instead.

Shuttle schedule slippage

Space ShuttleWith the final Apollo spacecraft’s flight mere months away, an internal NASA document examining the progress of the Space Shuttle program, approved in 1972 by President Nixon, spells out what seems like a worst-case scenario: thanks to the difficulties of creating whole new orders of technology to create a reusable space vehicle (on a budget which each successive Congress keeps slashing), the shuttle won’t be lifting off until 1979 at the earliest, leaving a potential four-year gap in American crewed spaceflight when NASA was anticipating (and publicizing) a gap of no more than two years. (In actuality, the time between crewed American space missions will be even longer than that.)

Columbia under construction

ColumbiaConstruction begins on Space Shuttle Orbiter Vehicle 102 (OV-102 for short), the shuttle orbiter that NASA intends to launch as early as 1977. But OV-102 encounters the inherent pitfalls of being the first of its kind: years of delays are ahead, with many of the delays linked to the complicated system of protective thermal tiles designed to bear the brunt of the shuttle’s punishing re-entry through the atmosphere. (The test orbiter, later named Enterprise, is never intended for spaceflight, so it only has to conform to the shape and weight of a returning shuttle for landing tests, and therefore it doesn’t face the same hurdles.) OV-102’s first flight won’t take place until 1981, leaving a six-year gap between manned American spaceflights; during this period OV-102 will be named Columbia.


ChallengerConstruction begins on Space Shuttle Structural Test Article 099 (STA-099), a full-sized structural model of the shuttle built for stress and thermal testing. Four years later, NASA decides to abandon plans to refit the test shuttle Enterprise for space duty at great expense, instead opting to upgrade the STA-099 airframe into a spaceworthy vehicle, which will eventually be named Challenger. While the refit will still be expensive, it takes less time and money than a complete teardown and rebuild of Enterprise’s airframe, which was never intended for flight outside the atmosphere.

Enterprise leaves drydock

EnterpriseOn schedule, the Space Shuttle Enterprise is rolled out of the Rockwell International plant in Palmdale, California to much public fanfare, a ceremony including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and most of the cast who played the crew of the Enterprise’s fictional namesake (William Shatner was conspicuously absent). The timing of the rollout, ironically, was intended to roll the test shuttle – originally named Constitution – out of the hangar on Constitution Day during the bicentennial year.

Enterprise hails a taxi

EnterpriseSpace Shuttle Enterprise, mated to the heavily-modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) for the first time, undergoes three “taxi tests” to enusre the structural stability of the two-vehicle combination on the runway before they ever take off. This is the first phase of a series of tests that will culminate, later in 1977, in a series of brief unpowered flights and landing tests using the Enterprise, verifying the shuttle’s gliding aerodynamics.

Enterprise test drive

EnterpriseMated to its Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, Space Shuttle Enterprise goes airborne for the first time in the first of a series of “captive-inert” test flights. During these flights, there is no crew aboard Enterprise, nor are any of the test shuttle’s systems powered up; the flights are intended to make sure that the combination of the 747 and the Enterprise is capable of being flown safely. Further “captive-inert” flights are carried out over a ten-day period.

Space Cooperation Agreement renewed

Apollo-SoyuzWith the 1972 agreement having resulted in the successful Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the United States and the Soviet Union formally renew the Space Cooperation Agreement. As an immediate goal to build on Apollo-Soyuz, both countries hold tentative discussions about docking the American Space Shuttle (which, it is still assumed, will be in space before the 1970s are out) and a Soviet Salyut space station. Though the shuttle’s first flight is still being delayed, the biggest hurdle will prove to be international relations, specifically a renewed chilling of the Cold War thanks to the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

Enterprise takes another test drive

EnterpriseMounted on the back of Boeing 747, the Space Shuttle Enterprise takes off on its first crewed flight, the first of three “captive-active” flights which see Enterprise remain in place on its carrier aircraft. For the first time, Enterprise’s computers, avionics and other flight systems are powered up in a full-up, hour-long dress rehearsal of an eventual free-flight landing test at 15,000 feet. The first crew of the Space Shuttle Enterprise consists of astronauts Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton.

Enterprise takes to the sky again

EnterpriseRiding the back of a modified Boeing 747, Space Shuttle Enterprise ascends to 22,000 feet for her second “active-captive” test flight, with all systems powered up and a crew aboard (astronauts Joe Engle and Richard Truly). The combined vehicle reaches speeds of over 300 miles per hour, and angles for “dropoff” – for upcoming test flights in which the Enterprise will actually separate from the 747 and glide to its landing strip – are studied for future reference.

Enterprise Approach & Landing Test 1

EnterpriseReleased from its 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft in mid-air for the first time, and airborne on its own for the first time, the Space Shuttle Enterprise takes wing over the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base for a test landing. With no engines on board (a test shuttle that will never go into orbit, Enterprise isn’t equipped with them) and only one shot at a safe landing, Enterprise successfully touches down on the runway after a flight lasting only a few minutes, validating the unpowered approach method of landing a shuttle just returned from space.

Space Shuttle external tank

External tankThe first Space Shuttle external tank, given the designation MPTA-ET (main propulsion test article external tank), is completed at NASA’a Michoud assembly plant in New Orleans. Though constructed to flight specifications (as they stand in 1977), MPTA-ET is not intended for orbital flight, but is instead erected on a test firing stand at a NASA facility in Mississippi for tests of the three-engine shuttle propulsion system, tests which do not produce a satisfactory result until July 1980. Its job completed, MPTA-ET is later put on display at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Enterprise Approach & Landing Test 2

EnterpriseFor the second time, the Space Shuttle Enterprise makes a safe landing at Edwards Air Force base after being released from the back of NASA’s 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft at the higher altitude of 26,000 feet over the Mojave Desert. Again testing the shuttle’s glide-only landing method, Enterprise has no engines to keep it aloft and glides to a successful landing.

Enterprise Approach & Landing Test 3

EnterpriseFor the third time, Space Shuttle Enterprise separates from the back of a Boeing 747 flying at nearly 25,000 feet above the dry lake bed landing strips at Edwards Air Force Base in California. With astronauts Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton aboard, Enterprise safely glides to her third safe landing at Edwards. This is the last of the test landings to leave the aerodynamic tail cone over Enterprise’s “anatomically correct” (but nonfunctional) main engines; the remaining Approach & Landing test flights will test the aerodynamics of an orbiter as it would return from space with those engines exposed.

Enterprise Approach & Landing Test 4

EnterpriseSpace Shuttle Enterprise makes its fourth free-flight after separating from its modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, gliding to a safe landing at Edwards Air Force Base’s dry lake bed runway. For the first time, Enterprise’s engines are left exposed, adding to the drag experienced by the gliding shuttle rather than masking the engines with a protective cover. This more accurately simulates the aerodynamics of a shuttle returning from space. Enterprise’s crew for the two-and-a-half-minute flight consists of Joe Engle and Richard Truly.

The Space Shuttle’s ambitious schedule

Space ShuttleNASA prepares a preliminary schedule of Space Shuttle launches, covering the years 1979-1982 (and assuming the shuttle will be ready to launch in 1979). The ambitious schedule (which also assumes, in line with current planning, that the test orbiter Enterprise will be upgraded to spaceworthiness) includes almost-monthly flights from 1979 onward to deploy communications and weather satellites already on the drawing board, as well as frequent science missions with the cargo-bay-mounted Spacelab. On only the second test flight, the schedule has OV-102 (yet to be named Columbia) slated for a mission to the abandoned early 1970s space station Skylab, using a teleoperator retrieval system which also exists only on paper. While many of the schedule’s goals will be met, the delay in the shuttle program will be longer than NASA anticipates at this time.

Enterprise Approach & Landing Test 5

EnterpriseAstronauts Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton bring Space Shuttle Enterprise back to the ground safely for its fifth free-flight landing test, the second to land with the shuttle’s engines exposed and the first to land on an actual paved runway at Edwards Air Force Base. The crew successfully compensates for a “bouncing” problem experienced on previous shuttle test landings, proving that Enterprise’s sister ships should be able to land safely after returning from orbit. Following this test, Enterprise is slated to undergo a major refit to finish it out into a spaceworthy orbiter, but NASA ultimately decides the process is too expensive. This is the final free-flight of Space Shuttle Enterprise.

Saving Skylab?

Skylab and ShuttleNASA 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.

STA-099 to OV-099

ChallengerWith 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.

Christening the fleet

Space ShuttleAfter 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.)

Columbia completed (almost)

ColumbiaSpace 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).

Enterprise rolls out to the pad

EnterpriseThe 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.

Discovery under construction

DiscoveryWith 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.

Atlantis under construction

AtlantisConstruction 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.

Columbia rolls out to the pad

ColumbiaFor 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.

STS-1: Columbia’s first flight

ColumbiaSpace 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.

Columbia opens the doors

ColumbiaSafely 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.

Columbia returns from orbit

ColumbiaThe 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.

Fuel spill delays Columbia’s second launch

ColumbiaThe 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.

STS-2: Columbia rides again

ColumbiaFor 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.

Columbia takes up arm

ColumbiaKey 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.