Thursday, July 7, 2011

STS-1, or Gerry's First Space Memory

The Space Shuttle Discovery heads into orbit for the last time tomorrow, assuming the weather holds. It will mark the last of 135 Shuttle missions, the first of which was in 1981.

That was a remarkable flight in many ways. It was the first--and only--time the U.S. had sent a manned space vehicle on its maiden flight with a crew in it. That's right, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo... all those capsules orbited empty a few times to work out the kinks before we loaded them with pilots.

So this was a huge risk, tossing a totally new system into space after rigorous atmospheric testing but with only computer modeling to tell us how it would hold up in a vacuum... or more important, in the hellish conditions of re-entry.

Columbia had ejection seats, a feature that was later removed. Its external fuel tank was painted white to match the rest of the vehicle stack, a decision that also lasted only a few flights because the paint added 600 pounds to its launch weight. It was a test flight, and the entire world was watching.

Looked smooth, right? But this checkride definitely discovered some problems. The most serious--the "overpressure" wave from the ignition of the solid rocket boosters damaged the rear of the shuttle at launch--could have doomed the mission. But engineers used the data from that first blastoff to improve the water sound suppression system and prevent that danger in future flights.

Of course, five-year-old me didn't really see it that way. I just saw a rocket, a graceful piece of machinery, head up into the unknown. That sight has never stopped inspiring me. And it will be sad to see it for the last time.

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