How the Space Shuttle Launched A Career in Science

You’re looking at a child of the Space Shuttle generation.

That’s me with my 5th grade science project on “Space Transportation: Space Shuttle” I took tremendous pride building these scaled models of Shuttle Columbia and the full launch vehicle complete with twin solid rocket boosters, external tank and launch pad ‘crawler’ vehicle.

Of course I’ll admit that paint job wasn’t all mine, it certainly helped to have a Walt Disney Imagineer and movie poster artist as a Dad. Thanks Dad!

For those of us lucky enough to have grown up with the Space Shuttle, its been an inspiring force.  With the very first Shuttle flight I know my interest in science reached full ignition and has never looked back.

And here’s where it began.

Like many kids growing up in the ‘Space Shuttle’ generation, I had my eyes glued to the TV watching an incredible rocket ship with wings on April 12, 1981.  Indeed it was the first winged spacecraft to reach space and return to Earth much like an airplane.  Shuttle Columbia’s rocket-powered ride into space was broadcast with an excitement for space travel not seen since the Apollo era.  This was followed by the most dramatic return of a spacecraft in history, gliding back to Earth, dropping down landing gear and rolling to a stop at Edwards Air Force Base.

With the July 2011 final flight of Atlantis, the Space Shuttle program now follows the programs before it like Mercury, Gemini and Apollo into the history books. What I will remember most about the Space Shuttle program isn’t what I saw on TV, it’s what I experienced first-hand living in Southern California’s ‘Shuttle Country’ and how it inspired me to follow a career in atmospheric and planetary sciences.

The home where I grew up sits on the west end of the San Fernando Valley, facing the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.  As a kid I remember the sound of rocket engine tests and rising steam plumes from the western hills.  All that noise erupting from the hills could’ve easily been confused for a volcanic blast.  The steam plume and roaring sound was very similar to watching one of Space Shuttle’s main engines come to life moments before liftoff.  Considering that was just *one* engine tested per time, it meant what I saw was only a small taste of the full power needed to reach escape velocity and break free of the Earth’s gravity.

Despite this incredible front-row view to rocket engine testing, I can’t get too nostalgic about the Santa Susana Field laboratory as it’s not really a place I’d recommend folks try to visit.  Today the area is best known for its 1950s partial nuclear meltdown, liquid metals research and spillage, sodium burn pits and other assorted pure environmental contamination that is still being scoured out of those hills.  I’d like to remember it more though for its rocket engine testing, which did offer this valley boy quite a sight to remember.

The other more dramatic and long-term experience from Space Shuttle missions landing in California was a rather unique sonic blast that immediately told you “Shuttle is here!” every time you heard it.  To use comic book sound effects it sounded like…. “BOOM!!…B-BOOM!”  That would be sound of twin sonic booms that were often loud enough to rattle windows at our house.

Here’s an example from site not too far away from my folks’ place courtesy of Steve McIntire from Stevenson Ranch, CA.  Listen around :12 seconds into the clip and the reaction!

I’d later understand this interesting sound effect was from two shock waves formed both at the nose and tail section of the Space Shuttle as it travels over Southern California heading for Edwards Air Force Base.  As NASA’s John Haberman from the Goddard Space Flight Center explains it, “The nose and tail shock waves are usually of similar strength. The time interval between the nose and tail shock waves is primarily dependent on the size of the aircraft and its altitude…the interval between nose and tail shock waves on the Space Shuttles, which are 122 ft long, is about one-half of a second (0.50 sec), making the double boom very distinguishable.”  So that’s the science of it, and let me tell you it was always super cool to hear it.

Many Space Shuttle missions followed, each slowly moving from the extraordinary with non-stop TV coverage into an event that was on TV briefly only at launch and landing.  The “Space-Transportation-System” was slowly becoming more and more routine.  It the eyes of most of the TV-viewing public the Shuttle wasn’t a space liner anymore.  It was more like a bus in space tossing up satellites and sending a few pretty pictures back to Earth.

For me it was always different, I still kept a vigilant interest in every mission.  I also gathered an expanding collection of Space Shuttle mission patches, photos and books like this one that detailed America’s amazing space machine.

One of my favorite books growing up – “Space Liner” by William Stockton and John Noble Wilford.

It could be argued that shuttle program’s nearly perfect record of launches and landings became too routine, even to those responsible for the safety and security of the missions.  This led to the next major milestone in the Shuttle program which is still to this day perhaps the saddest.

America’s “Teacher in Space” competition could have been considered the first ‘reality television’ event in history.  More than 10,000 of the fittest and the brightest of America’s science-driven school teachers yielded a top candidate in Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord High School in New Hampshire.  McAuliffe’s space-based lessons were to be broadcast via Challenger as part of what she called the ‘ultimate field trip.’

Among the lessons McAuliffe hoped to teach was on the benefits of space travel, “Where We’re Been, Where We’re Going, Why”

All of us who were in class on January 28th, 1986 will never forget what we learned that day.


“Please pray for the families of the astronauts of Challenger which crashed this morning after launch.” – Chaminade Junior High School intercom during morning announcements.

We crammed ourselves into the student library on break to watch the live-coverage of the “Challenger Accident”.  One look at the video made us all keenly aware there was no hope for recovery.  We learned a lesson that day more powerful than any science, engineering textbook could illustrate.  Any attempt to reach orbit strapped to a massive volume of liquid oxygen and hydrogen was an incredibly complex challenge and one that could never be underestimated or ever seem ‘ordinary’.

President Reagan’s speech to the nation following the Challenger accident.

STS-26  September 26, 1988

Nearly three years later came our return to space via Discovery.  The Shuttle patch here commemorated the seven Challenger astronauts with the “Big Dipper” Ursa Major constellation.  Clearly, everyone had the “Challenger Seven” on their mind as Discovery lifted away from the launch pad.  We watched nervously again, counting the post-launch seconds one after the other.  We waited until we heard those familiar launch command words, “…Go At Throttle Up” at roughly the same time that doomed Challenger before.

Shuttle Discovery passed that mark with the cool words of Commander Frederick Hauck, “…Roger, Go!” and with solid rocket booster separation we could all breathe a huge sigh of relief.  The crew of STS-26 successfully picked us all up again for that incredible ride into and back from space.

Discovery returns the Shuttle program to space:

In the next years, the Space Shuttle’s incredible versatility was on full display from rescuing failing satellites to building out the now quite massive International Space Station.  Many missions later, the age and inherent design flaws of the space transportation system manifested itself again with the loss of the original Space Shuttle Columbia during re-entry on Feb. 3, 2003.  This time it wasn’t failed booster rocket O-rings that doomed Columbia, rather a new fatal flaw in the form of cracked and compromised heat shielding along the left wing.  Sadly, another seven astronauts lost their lives.

Losing a second Space Shuttle and crew to an entirely new catastrophic flaw renewed skepticism on the Space Shuttle program as a viable space transport system as well as NASA’s increasingly apparent troubles with safety control.  As incredible a machine the Space Shuttle program had proven to be, the aging fleet of Shuttles branded with a “1-50 to 1-100” catastrophic failure rate (or as high as 1-25 odds by some engineers) was really the beginning of the end for the Shuttle program.

Simply put, there would not be another 50-100 missions again before another ‘catastrophic accident’ could occur for a third time.  With the International Space Station largely complete and shuttle mission costs skyrocketing as fast as main engine ignition, we find ourselves where we are today as we watch the final flight of this flawed yet fantastic flying machine.

STS-135 July 8, 2011

This leads us to this final mission patch for the Shuttle program for STS-135.  Atlantis is expected (weather permitting as always) to launch and land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  That said there’s a part of me that is hoping for some kind of weather delta or anomaly in NASA-speak, that will bring this last mission back to Edwards Air Force Base again one more time just like the first Shuttle mission some 30 years ago.  I would love to hear that distinctive double sonic boom one more time as the shuttle slices through the sky over my parents’ house on its way to Rogers Dry Lake bed.

Watching this last Space Shuttle mission brings back many memories like those I’ve shared here, but it did more than that.  It changed me.

Many years ago I was a kid writing to NASA looking for help and input on his 5th grade science project.  NASA came through for me with photos, slides, and brochures on the space program, including the Space Shuttle that were otherwise impossible to find an age without the internet.  I never forgot the personalized letter I received and how years later as I studied air composition, planetary sciences, thermodynamics and all aspects of meteorology I can still trace my path back to that day I received that NASA envelope in the mail.

I’m still very grateful for the NASA team with all its scientists, astronauts and engineers past and present for inspiring my generation of school kids through triumph, tragedy and triumph again into careers built in science.  I chose a path that blessed me with a wonderful career as a broadcast meteorologist and a part-time Geosciences (and Planetary Sciences) lecturer for Cal State East Bay.  Though there were times I wish I could’ve trade it briefly, maybe for 7-10 days to fly as a mission specialist on a Shuttle flight.

Of course there won’t be that opportunity as the Shuttle program is ending.  Though for America’s space program I hope this end is really only the beginning.

With the Shuttle’s eventual replacement Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle not ready for launch for a few more years, I hope that today’s young generation of aspiring space scientists don’t lose focus.  May students with dreams of traveling beyond Earth’s orbit find science and space travel just as compelling as it was for me.

I know they will, on the very moment they watch the next great space liner fly farther into space in ways not thought possible before.

Thank you: NASA

By robmayeda

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