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In the Age of Spaceplanes

Stories from the shuttle astronauts, in their own words.

Ask space shuttle astronauts to call up memories of their time in orbit and they’re not likely to focus on the data they gathered or the payloads they launched. They might talk instead about a meal shared with crewmates in weightlessness, or the beauty of auroras viewed from above, or the sense of community they felt with everyone looking down at Earth from space. That’s a uniquely human perspective. Satellites have no such feelings.

We tend to focus on the machine when we think of the space shuttle—the raw power and the intricate engineering. But the people inside were always the point. The shuttle carried human society into orbit, a few individuals at a time, for 30 years. The astronauts lived and worked in a most unusual environment for short periods, seeing things the rest of us will never see. Until orbital tourism companies start launching people in greater numbers, the shuttle program will remain the high-water mark of human space exploration.

And as this sampler of stories (most of which appeared in our 2002 book, Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years) shows, the astronauts who’ve been to orbit have tales to tell. Click on the gallery above to read some of them.

Pictured above: Dave Williams and Jay Buckey, both first-time space fliers, look out Columbia’s aft flight deck window during the STS-90 mission in 1998.

Jack Lousma: We Were Going to Rescue Skylab


In the late 1970s, while the shuttle was still in development, Fred Haise and I were assigned to do a Skylab rescue attempt on the third flight. We had already abandoned the Skylab space station, which had been in orbit since 1973. They’d stopped listening to it, and were just tracking it as an object in space. From the tracking it was clear that the station was coming down sooner than we thought it would, because solar eruptions were periodically heating up and expanding the atmosphere at that altitude, which had a drag effect. So they decided, “Gee whiz, we’ve got to figure out a way to either bring it down in a controlled way or put it higher.” So they contacted the Skylab, and found that, sure enough, they could control it.

On the third shuttle flight we were going to go up and rendezvous with the Skylab, then we were going to pop this booster package out of the shuttle and fly it over and hook it on the space station, where the Apollo command/service module was normally docked. The package had a television camera on the front, so you would get a view as if you were flying the command/service module in for a docking. The picture would be relayed back to the space shuttle, where I would have had a hand controller. I would fly the booster package over to Skylab, dock it, then stand off somewhere and fire the engine either to make the station go higher or make it go in the water.

That was the plan. I worked on that for about a year, knowing that I was going to fly the third flight. This is what I was doing while the STS-1 and -2 crews were training for their missions. Originally we were planning to fly the first shuttle in 1978 or thereabouts, but the STS-1 launch kept slipping. And Skylab was coming down so fast—it finally reentered in 1979—that we realized STS-3 might not launch soon enough. So Fred and I were assigned to STS-2, because there was still a chance of making it. But the first launch kept slipping, to the point where they decided not even STS-1 could get there in time.

Pictured: Lousma training for the shuttle in 1978.

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