We all know that bureaucracy can lead to overcomplicated situations. If you’ve never heard of UNOOSA then rest assured you will not be the only one. The acronym stands for United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, it’s history can be traced back to the late fifties and early sixties. How does this relate to the X-37B? Well, the UNOOSA created *prepare yourself* the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, which has been accepted by the United Nations General Assembly. You can read the content in its entirety here but the short summary would be that all space exploration will be done with good intentions and is equally open to all States that comply with international law… basically, don’t be the classroom bully shaking down or beating up the other kids.
So, interesting then that the US airforce is developing its own military shuttle, the highly secretive X-37B. Fully automated, launched atop a Boeing Atlas-V rocket and able to stay in orbit for months at a time, there don’t seem to be many actual facts about its purpose floating about. Commanded by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, 21st Space Wing, of the Air Force Space Command in Colorado, its official mission is “to provide resilient and cost-effective Space and Cyberspace capabilities for the Joint Force and the Nation.” Several times smaller than the retired Space Shuttles of which its aerodynamic design was derived, the project started in 1999 when NASA selected Boeing Integrated Defense Systems to design and develop an orbital vehicle. It was built by the California branch of Boeing’s Phantom Works whose primary focus is developing advanced military products and technologies, many of them highly classified. Five years later, the operation was transferred from NASA to DARPA and became shrouded in mystery.
The Air Force stated it will “demonstrate various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components, and associated technology to be transported into space and back”, which could mean absolutely anything. Surely it will only be a matter of time before the public will start asking questions en masse – until someone else leaks a bundle of cables disclosing everything of course.
noun [U] /ɡlenn/
› Man. Legend. America’s first orbiting astronaut.
You can read more about him in this piece about the Space Shuttle program, but today 15 years ago, John Glenn made history again by returning to space at the age of 77 which established his place in history not only as a pioneer but a man who never knew how to quit, having flown in both Mercury and Shuttle programmes.
Following from Hubble’s story in part two, the year is 1995 and in June of that year space shuttle Atlantis lifts off. It’s mission: to dock with MIR, the Russian space station that by some is seen as the predecessor to the International Space Station. This event led to what was at the time the largest spacecraft ever in orbit, with a total mass of almost 225 tons (around half a million pounds). The following five days saw joint U.S.-Russian operations including biomedical investigations, and transfer of equipment to and from Mir. The lessons learned from this and the following 10 orbiter flights to MIR would later pave the way for the ISS, a station operated by multiple partners.
In October of 1998 John Glenn, America’s first orbiting astronaut (in 1962) made history again by going up with the shuttle Discovery. This made him not only the oldest person to fly in space by serving as a payload specialist at the age of 77, but he also became the only person ever to have flown in both the Mercury and Shuttle programmes. The nine-day mission supported a variety of research, with Glenn spending most of his time in space participating in investigations on the aging process. As the effects of spaceflight on the human body show parallels to the natural changes that take place as a person ages, Glenn’s experiments were designed to test how his body responded to the microgravity environment.
The new millenium unfortunately saw another dark year for space flight. In January of 2003, space shuttle Columbia lifted off on a 17-day science mission featuring numerous microgravity experiments. Upon reentry however, Columbia suffered from a catastrophic failure due to a breach that occured during launch. As it turned out, falling foam from the external tank struck the reinforced carbon panels on the underside of the left wing due to which the heat shielding was compromised, and hot gases encountered on re-entry penetrated the hole and tore Columbia apart. The orbiter including its seven crewmembers were lost approximately 15 minutes before Columbia was scheduled to touch down at Kennedy Space Center. The loss underlined once again the vulnerabilities of the space shuttle. Again the fleet got grounded, and this time it led to President George W Bush announcing in January of 2004 that “In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service.”
Stay tuned for the history of the programme’s retirement. Until next time!
The ill-fated Challenger, the second space shuttle to be built was the first to conduct a spacewalk. Unfortunately 3 years later in January of 1986, disaster struck when a seal on a rocket booster failed, leading to the shuttle’s destruction 72 seconds into its mission. It was a disaster on many levels for NASA, because not only did it lose seven astronauts and a very expensive shuttle that day but the event showed the world that this was a dangerous business to be in. On this particular launch, media attention was at an all time high, because of the presence of crew member Christa McAulliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space.
The tragedy led to a 32-months hiatus in the shuttle program, and President Ronald Reagan setting up the Rogers Commission, which was to investigate the accident. Not only that, but the Air Force decided to launch its classified military satellites using the Titan IV rockets instead.
The program bounced back however, and saw several highlights in a row in between the launch of a range of science probes and telescopes… in May of 1989, Magellan was the first planetary mission to be launched by an orbiter, despatched to Venus to make a radar map of its surface. Even more important as it would turn out was the launch of the Hubble space telescope (HST) in April of 1990 – the two would have an ongoing affair for quite some time as it turned out because the HST would need quite some maintenance.
However, looking at the results of what Hubble gave us, no one could argue with its importance in NASA’s history. The most important of those re-visits was made by Endeavour, the shuttle which was built to replace Challenger using structural spare parts originally intended for the other orbiters. In December 1993, the shuttle carried up the equipment that would correct Hubble’s flawed vision. The telescope became one of the best showcases for the shuttle as it transformed our knowledge of the cosmos by showing us the most dazzling places in the universe like we had never seen them before.
Stay tuned for part 3 where we take it away starting from the Mir missions!
Nearly 2 years ago, NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles, which started operating 30 years before. Several companies have thrown their hat in the ring to be its successor in different ways, so let us have a look back at the program that gave us the Magellan spacecraft, the Hubble telescope, and the International Space Station to name a few.
It was in the late sixties that the Space Transportation System program was devised, as a means of reducing the cost of spaceflight by introducing a reusable spacecraft. The final agreed design would feature three main components: the orbiter (the reusable spaceplane most people refer to as the shuttle), a disposable external tank and two reusable solid-fuel rocket boosters. The contract to build this triumph of human engineering would end up going to North American Aviation (later becoming part of Rockwell International, which now is a part of Boeing). When the prototype shuttle Enterprise (named after the Star Trek ship of the same name flown by Captain James T. Kirk) was ready it started a series of tests, the first of which were ground-based and then from 1977 included multiple flights to analyze the behaviour and characteristics of the orbiter.
It was humanity’s first reusable spacecraft, pushing the boundaries of technology while requiring the tremendous effort of a vast workforce that showed an unwavering commitment to mission success. Looking back on it now, the shuttles carried people into orbit repeatedly, launched, recovered and repaired satellites, conducted cutting-edge research and built the largest structure in space, the International Space Station. It would be hard to imagine a NASA history without them.
When the first space shuttle Columbia launched in April of 1981 flown by astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen, these two men truly boldly went where no man had gone before as they took off in a craft that had not first been sent on an unmanned test mission.
When Challenger, the second shuttle became operational in April of 1983, NASA now had a fleet of reusable spaceplanes. They would indeed change the way we humans would live and work in space. Large payloads could now be taken into or retreived from orbit, which opened a world of new possibilities. As the years advanced, three more shuttles joined the program: Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour but more on that next time, so be sure to check in again soon!