Shuttle: A lesson in life, and death

Aged 10 I was sitting cross legged in our assembly hall at my school in England. Our teacher had hurriedly got us all to leave our classroom and sit in front of the colour television he had rolled into the hall on its wheeled stand. I remember our teacher’s excitement and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. On the tv screen was a machine the likes the world had never seen before.

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At about 11.00 GMT 25 years ago today the world’s first reusable space plane launched from Kennedy Space. I remember it like it was yesterday.
In the years after I followed the Shuttle programme’s progress like a rock band groupie.

Sadly I also remember with complete clarity the Shuttle launch on 28 January 1986.
Standing in the living room of my home I watched the countdown and the first 72s of Challenger’s mission STS-51L. Upstairs on my bedroom wall was a large poster with a cut away of Shuttle.

At 73s I saw what I couldn’t believe at first. The ball of smoke atop a vertical winding trail of exhaust plume and two prongs of smoke, that were the solid rocket boosters carrying on in a futile effort. Then I had to accept it, a Space Shuttle had exploded.

On 1 February 2003 I had a similar experience. Visiting space enthusiast friends in the UK city of Milton Keynes north of London I sat in someone else’s lounge talking and then a phone call came through. My host was visible shocked by the caller’s news and the television was switched on.

The first images to appear were of the debris descending through the atmosphere, glowing hot. Another seven astronauts had just died. For my generation Apollo was history, the Shuttle was the new frontier.

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I remember Shuttle being described as a space truck that would make orbital flight routine. With hindsight we can see that was never going to be possible. Reading the post-mission analysis reports of STS-1 the external tank insulation issue was a major problem then and remains so.

Last year NASA administrator Michael Griffin said, “shame on us” in reference to the fact that the agency had never properly tackled the insulation debris issue. Griffin is also a former NASA chief engineer, so yes, Michael, shame on you.

Being a post-graduate engineer turned reporter for Flight I now have a great position to follow in-depth the development of the new manned transportation system, Crew Exploration Vehicle.

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I don’t remember the news reports from 1981 or subsequent missions but NASA can’t expect the adulatory coverage it received during the Apollo programme and after.
Admittedly NASA was the wonder agency back then. Despite the on-pad fire that killed the Apollo 1 crew, Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Virgil "Gus" Grissom, from October 1968 (when Apollo 7 flew) to 27 January 1986 the agency had had a fantastic record of success.

It became a victim of that success. If the Apollo years were a period of the agency proving its worth then the 70s and 80s saw it become complacent in its achievements competing against the Soviet Union. The two Shuttle accidents have shattered that public image of invincible NASA and shaken its engineers’ and managers’ self belief.

But is hasn’t stopped elements of the space programme making pronouncements about the effectiveness and safety of the new transportation system. I hope that my fellow spaceflight reporters and I can make NASA think twice before it makes ‘space truck’ like statements about CEV.

NASA has to admit from the beginning that CEV is a vehicle for which difficult engineering decisions have been made. Difficult decisions because even with today’s technology getting into people into low Earth orbit is tough and very risky.

As President Kennedy said, ‘we do it not because it is easy, but because it is hard’.


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The two Shuttle accidents are a reminder that the hardest parts of spaceflight is launch and landing. Thus far, assuming neither the Soviets or the Chinese have ever had in-orbit accidents, no human has ever died in space. But that one day will surely happen, I only hope its long after I have stopped reporting on manned missions.

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