I am a child of the shuttle.
The final extended mission series to be launched by the United States was Apollo. Apollo 17 launched on December 7. 1972, slightly before my time on earth began. The final manned launched before the shuttle program was for SkyLab, which occurred shortly after my time on earth began. The only thing I have ever really known is shuttle.
Growing up with shuttle, I never really appreciated the complexity involved in launching a space craft. Really, I can’t say now that I fully appreciate it, other than I know it’s hard. As with most things, if something has always been around your whole life, you tend not appreciate it as much. In the last year, I have started to study the shuttle program and I am in awe of what it entailed and what it accomplished. It was the most complex machine humans have ever built and had the most complicated launch profile of any space mission. Literally millions of tasks and checks had to be performed in the final nine minutes before launch and a failure at any level would result in an aborted launch. What is truly remarkable is that a failed launch was rare.
My favorite part of shuttle is the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs). Here are a few facts:
- The SSMEs burn cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen for fuel
- The fuel pumps on the engines could drain an average size swimming pool in 25 seconds
- The engines burn 350 gallons of fuel per second
- The combustion chamber in the engine operates at over 6,000 degrees fahrenheit, hotter than the boiling point of iron
- The reason the engines do not melt at that temperature is because the cryogenic fuels are used to cool the engine before they are burned
- The engines produce 418,000 pounds of thrust at lift-off
When I first read about the SSME combustion temperatures being hot enough to turn iron into a gas, I believe my initial reaction was something along of lines of WTF?!
Each shuttle mission was coded as STS-x (Space Transportation System, the original name of the shuttle program). A total of 135 missions were flown, with two missions ending in the loss of the orbiter. I have a vivid memory of the loss of both Challenger and Columbia. It brought focus back to how dangerous it was to hurl 4.4 million pounds into space.
Now that shuttle is retired, we have gone back to the drawing board on how to replace it. I’m eager to see how the final product preforms.
In closing, here is my favorite launch video, from STS-51c (sound on, please):
Notice how the entire launch assembly rocks back and forth when the SSMEs are ignited. Awesome.
I also encourage you to watch the shuttle tribute that shows up in the video window during the launch.
And so it goes.