The History of Nasas Space Shuttle Program

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"The History of Nasas Space Shuttle Program"
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The residents of Edwards Air Force Base have over the years become blase about strange flying craft in the skies. They have seen rocket craft, bombers and fighters that broke records and smashed seemingly impossible barriers but even they were enthralled when in early 1977 a huge aerial glider the size of a DC9 airliner slid gracefully through the warm and arid California air. This was the first and largely forgotten space shuttle Enterprise.

By 2020 the Space Shuttle fleet of Endeavour, Discovery and Atlantis will have been replaced by the new Orion spacecraft and an era of spaceflight will be gone. The orbiter (as the spacecraft are correctly known) was designed to be reusable and to fly through the Earth's atmosphere. Two orbiter's Challenger and Columbia have been lost, claiming the lives of fourteen astronauts. The very first shuttle, however, never went into space and was only built to test the design, but its story is just as fascinating.

NASA started the space shuttle program in July 1970 when they gave study contracts to North American-Rockwell and another to McDonnell Douglas to design a space shuttle. Two years later on 16 July 1972 the design submitted by Rockwell won the contract to build a fleet of space vehicles. The first craft designated OV-101 started to come together as components at Rockwell's Downey facility. These were subsequently delivered to Rockwell's Air Force Plant 42 facility for final construction, which began on 4 June 1974.

The world's press got their first look at the spacecraft on September 17 1976 when it was wheeled out of the construction hanger and onto the tarmac. The theme tune to Television's sci-fi classic 'Star Trek' was playing on loud speakers and to the amazement of the assembled crowds members of the cast from the TV show were there to greet the craft which bore the name Enterprise. This name had followed a popular write in campaign across America to name the vehicle after the popular television show. Only three members of the cast were missing including William Shatner, who played Captain James T Kirk. To some traditionalists the name Enterprise was a shame as the spacecraft was originally to have been called Constitution in honour of the 1976's American bicentennial.

Enterprise was built to test the aircraft's performance within the atmosphere and the resulting Approach and Landing Test Program (ALT) was the culmination of a decade of hard work by NASA engineers and scientists. Enterprise was constructed without engines so to get the aircraft to Edwards required some ingenious solutions. The first occurred on January 31 1977 when the orbiter was placed on the back of a very large flat bed truck and towed the 36 miles from Palmdale to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base.

The (ALT) program started soon after her arrival in February 1977 and lasted for nine months. For the program four NASA astronauts were given command of the aircraft, Fred Haise (Apollo 13) and Gordon Fullerton and a second team comprising of Joe Engle (X-15) and Dick Truly. Initially the ALT was conducted on the ground that included mating Enterprise with a specially converted Boeing 747 transport. When the two aircraft were joined in this manner the combined craft became known as SCA. These tests allowed engineers to gauge the stresses placed upon both aircraft in ground handling situations. In the first instance these tests were unmanned and with a tailcone attached over the engine bay. When the success of the ground testing had been validated the staggering sight of the Enterprise rising into the air on the back of the Boeing 747 was witnessed for the first time on 18 February 1977 with Fitz Fulton, Tom McMurtry, Vic Horton and Skip Guidry in the Boeing 747 (NASA 905). The flight was a success and another four were made before the program moved onto the next phase so called 'captive active with astronauts inside Enterprise. Each of the four astronauts had trained for the flights on NASA's ground simulator and in a modified Grumman Gulfstream II.

On 18 June 1977 the 747 and Enterprise flew for an hour of faultless flight with all mission targets being achieved. Onboard were Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton who reported in debrief that the Enterprise was buffet and flutter free up to 180mph. The next flight on 28 June saw Truly and Engle in the Space Shuttle and the maximum speed was increased to 280mph and again few problems were encountered. Such was the success that instead of the originally planned number of flights the captive active series was reduced to three flights, the last one taking place on 26 July.

The day of the first free flight was set for 12 August 1977. The pairing of Enterprise and the 747 took to the air and gradually rose to 28,100 feet. The NASA 905 nosed down into a shallow dive and Fred Haise radioed Fulton, 'The Enterprise is set, thanks for the lift', before engaging the separation sequence seven explosive charges released the shuttle at 24,250 feet. The astronauts pitched Enterprise up and to the right, whilst the 747 pitched down and to the left to safely separate. Enterprise would only be in the air for a little over five minutes during which time the huge delta wing glider flew over Leuhman Ridge, passed over Highway 58 at Boron, turned towards Peerless Valley, swung over North Edwards and lined up on Runway 17. Fred Haise landed the Enterprise 3000 feet beyond its target landing spot due to unexpected lower lift to drag ratio at 180mph. The shuttle continued to coast on the dry lakebed for one and a half nautical miles before coming to a standstill.

NASA engineers wanted the next flight to be without the tailcone to assess the effect on the flight profile and its effects on the Boeing 747 aircraft. In theory the tailcone's removal would shorten the descent time by half to just over two minutes. The next test flight was on 13 September, but with the tailcone attached. Joe Engle and Richard Truly completed a trouble free flight, followed by Haise and Fullerton on 23 September. This test was so successful that the tailcone removal was authorised. Rockwell replaced it with an identical layout to that found on the Space Shuttle Columbia then under construction including three main engines and orbital manoeuvring jets.

The SCA took off on 12 October 1977 and the anticipated buffeting never materialised and after forty minutes, Enterprise separated from the 747 carrier. Thirty-eight seconds after the now well practised dive from 25,000 feet the explosive charges were fired and Enterprise was once again airborne. The speed of the craft in descent had as predicted increased and after two minutes 34 seconds Enterprise was firmly on the ground.

The next test was to check the shuttle's suitability for the relatively short 15,000 foot runways at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and Vandenberg airforce base in California. The test took place on 26 October and from 19,000feet Fred Haise piloted Enterprise at 450mph. At the threshold of the runway the craft was 30mph faster than expected and needed to be slowed down. The split rudder speed brake was applied causing the Enterprise to bounce on landing and once more before coming to rest in front of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.

With the flight program complete the Enterprise became the test vehicle for the Space Shuttle program being ferried from NASA facility to NASA facility across the United States. On March 1978 Enterprise left the Edwards runway for the last time; it was ferried to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, Texas where it was displayed to 240,000 visitors over the weekend. Whilst at Houston, the Boeing 747 crew and the Shuttle project officers received the NASA exceptional Service Medal. Donald K Slayton project director for the approach and landing tests received the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal.

On March 13 1978 she was ferried atop the Boeing 747 to Marshall Space Center to be mated with an external fuel tank and rocket boosters for vertical ground vibration tests that lasted until March the following year.

On April 10, 1979, Enterprise returned to the Kennedy Space Center where she was positioned on Launch complex 39A again with the external tank and rocket boosters. She was never going to be launched, she was merely acting as a practice and launch complex fit-check verification tool to represent the flight vehicles. Later in 1979 on August 16 Enterprise was once again fitted to the back of the SCA and ferried across America to California's Dryden Flight Research facility and then overland to her birthplace at Palmdale on 30 October. At Rockwell certain items of equipment were removed from Enterprise and refurbished for use on Columbia and later space shuttles. With this process complete Enterprise was again loaded onto the back of a large truck and carefully towed back to Dryden Flight Research Center on September 6 1981.

Such was the interest in the Space Shuttle program in the late 1970's and early 1980's that Enterprise was used as a promotional workhorse for NASA. The space shuttle flew across the Atlantic and went on show in France for the Paris Air show, Germany, Italy, Canada and in the United Kingdom at Southend on Sea

The US Air Force's interest in the space shuttle program had seen a large amount of investment in the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California where a complete launch and recovery system had been built at great expense. Enterprise was taken there between April and October 1984 to test the facility's capacity to handle the Space Shuttles. Once this task had been completed Enterprise was once more on the move, this time by barge, to the United States 1984 World's Fair at Mobile Alabama where Enterprise was the star attraction.

Between November 1984 and May 1985 she was again in the care of the US Air Force at Vandenberg Air Force Base before returning to Dryden Flight Research Facility. By September 20 1985 her usefulness as a test vehicle at an end, Enterprise was donated to the Smithsonian Museum and was ferried to Dulles Airport in Washington DC via Kennedy Space Centre arriving there on 18 November 1985.

Many expected that she would remain a museum piece but less than a year later she was in demand. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded many expected Enterprise to be refitted and used as a replacement vehicle, instead a new orbiter was constructed with leftover items from the building of Discovery and Atlantis and became Endeavour. For the next twenty years Enterprise remained on show at the Smithsonian, until 2003 when the original space shuttle, Columbia, was destroyed returning to Earth having suffered structural damage during launch.

Enterprise would play a part in determining the cause of the tragedy. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board removed a fibreglass panel from Enterprise's wing to undergo testing. This required a piece of foam being fired at high velocity at the panel; the results conclusively suggested that a damaged wing panel led to the destruction of Columbia.

Having been at the Washington Dulles International Airport site of Smithsonian Museum for many years Enterprise was recently moved to a brand new hanger at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F Udvar-Hazy Centre at Dulles where she is rightly the centrepiece of the space collection there.

More about this author: Patrick Boniface

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