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Atlantis as seen from the International Space Station in February 2001. (NASA)

Meet the Orbiters

A fleet of winged spacecraft, the likes of which we'll never see again.

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Standardization was key to the shuttle’s purpose. “All the vehicles look basically the same,” says Ross. “There are some relatively minor differences. Obviously, Columbia being the first and the heaviest was probably the most significant difference.” Engineers erred on the side of caution, reinforcing Columbia’s airframe more than needed; it ended up 7,000 pounds heavier than the other orbiters. The extra weight disqualified it for later flights to the International Space Station. Because of the station’s high inclination—51.6 degrees from the equator—NASA had to sacrifice the launch boost provided by the spin of Earth. For each degree north in a launch trajectory, an orbiter had to leave about 500 pounds of payload at home. Columbia could have reached the ISS, but it wouldn’t have been able to bring much. Instead, it traveled to lower-inclination destinations, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, orbiting at 28.5 degrees.

Story Musgrave is the only astronaut to have flown aboard all five orbiters. “Columbia, I always viewed her as sort of the queen of the fleet,” he says. “Columbia was the first of the five to climb into space and the one that could orbit Earth the longest. It had more oxygen and hydrogen tanks. And so for every long-duration mission, it was Columbia that flew it. Because it turns out the limiting factor on all the flights was electricity.” On Musgrave’s sixth and final mission, STS-80, which launched in November 1996, the crew set a record for the longest shuttle mission: 17 days, 15 hours, 53 minutes, and 18 seconds.

Few astronauts have ever complained about the shuttle’s close quarters. And “close” is a relative term. Discovery, for example, offered 2,325 cubic feet of habitable volume, versus 316 for the Orion capsule that NASA proposed as the spacecraft after the shuttle, or 36 cubic feet inside the Mercury capsule.

“I loved to sleep on the flight deck,” recalls Ross. “But some commanders would not allow it, or some missions were 24-hour operations.” He would try to sleep during the night pass, he says, and wake for the day pass “to see parts of the Earth we would not have seen otherwise because of the orbit we were in.” It was also cooler on the flight deck, which had strong flows of fan air, he recalls.

His favorite spot, though, was being in the airlock, “when we were preparing equipment and getting suited for an EVA” [extravehicular activity, or spacewalk]. He made nine spacewalks.

Ross’s favorite aspect of the shuttle is its reusability. “That’s a pretty incredible accomplishment in and of itself,” he says. “I think another is the incredible capabilities that it gave us to take payload into orbit, to capture things or mate up with things in orbit, to do spacewalks, to do construction.

“The two biggest drawbacks to the vehicle were, one, it has all its reentry protective shields exposed to the launch and on-orbit environment, the RCC blankets in particular, which is the most critical part. The other thing is that its complexity did require a lot of on-the-ground work to get it ready to go each time. It was far from being the commercial airliner, fill-it-up-with-gas-and-go-again kind of thing. But for a first time, this kind of vehicle really was an amazing capability.”

Former mission specialist and three-time flier Mike Mullane loves to talk about living in the shuttle: “One thing that always surprised me about being in space in the orbiter was how the volume above your head became usable.” In his book Riding Rockets, Mullane recounts the first scheduled sleep period of his first mission. Once everyone was asleep in the mid-deck, he floated up to the flight deck and fixed his sleep restraint beneath the windows that were effectively Discovery’s sunroof. As the autopilot kept the orbiter flying along on its back, tail first, Mullane gazed down at the great sphere of Earth passing by. He barely slept.

Like Chang-Dìaz, Mullane has changes he might have suggested during the design phase, such as a better escape system than the telescoping bail-out pole installed after Challenger, good only at subsonic speed below 30,000 feet. “But I’d fly the shuttle tomorrow without an escape system,” he says.

Perhaps this is the lasting impression that the space shuttle will leave behind: That of a marvelous, dangerous creature with astronauts willing to take the risks to enjoy the adventure.

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