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Sunday, 8 October, 2000, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
100 missions and counting
shuttle
Shuttle provides almost routine access to space
By BBC News Online science editor David Whitehouse

You cannot describe the launch of a space shuttle. The flames from its boosters are brighter than the Sun and the noise does not just assault your ears, it shakes your whole body.

As it commands your senses, you realise how much more terrifying it must be for those riding it into space. The astronauts call it "riding the stack".

It has been flying for nearly half of the time that man has ventured into Orbit, and it typifies the direction that spaceflight has taken after the Apollo Moon landings.

To some, it has given us almost routine access to space. But for others, it has confined us to the Earth's vicinity and constrained man's reach into the cosmos.

Space truck

The shuttle was supposed to be a space truck, with a fleet of them supporting a mission a week - safe space travel, pioneering a new frontier and projecting a powerful American image.

shuttle
Shuttle: Pioneering a new frontier
It received the go-ahead in 1972 and immediately the budget cuts started.

Engineers and astronauts could see what was happening: the shuttle being built was not the one they had in mind. Its abilities would be more limited. But this was lost on some people, many of them Nasa managers and politicians, who preferred to believe the hype instead.

In April 1981, 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, Columbia blasted-off.

During the launch, the heart rate of the pilot, Robert Crippen, reached 180 beats per minute. The heart rate of the commander, John Young, was somewhat less. He said that at 50 years old, his heart could not go any faster.

The rates were no surprise to officials. It was Crippen's first space mission whereas John Young had been in space four times (twice to the Moon, including a walk on its surface).

Dream versus reality

The early 1980s saw the space shuttle transform manned spaceflight with the first 24 missions achieving many firsts.

But many chose the dream over engineering reality. After two dozen flights politicians and Nasa managers began believing the glossy brochures and forgot that the shuttle was really still an experimental spacecraft.

Challenger accident
Challenger accident: A defining moment
Then came the space shuttle's epiphany and a moment that changed spaceflight forever.

The night before Challenger exploded in January 1986 with the loss of its crew of seven, concerned engineers pleaded with space officials not to launch the orbiter. The weather was too cold and the boosters might have been damaged, they said.

The fears were dismissed. "This is the space shuttle," they were told. "It's transformed manned spaceflight making it routine - safe."

The reality is that the space shuttle is still dangerous. The programme has had 99 flights and one catastrophic failure. If those same statistics applied to routine travelling to work then one would be lucky to survive a month.

Long life ahead

It is very likely that the space shuttle will carry on working in space for another 20 years.

Nasa has been dithering about its successor for years and although so-called space planes are being developed they are many years away from preliminary testing and are always at risk of being cancelled by politicians.

After 99 space missions we can gain a little perspective about the space shuttle. It was never what it was hoped to be - dreams of a mission a week seem ridiculous today - but it has become all that it could be.

But one image more than any other comes to mind when I think of the space shuttle. A soon-to-be shuttle astronaut was showing his young son around the launch pad as the orbiter was being prepared for blast-off the following day.

In the five-year-old's eyes were amazement at the size of the launch gantry and the white sweeping lines of the shuttle perched on its enormous fuel tank.

But, fleetingly, in the astronaut's eyes, I saw something else. As he showed his son the space shuttle he was proud. However, he had no illusions about just how serious riding the stack into space would be.

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