How NASA’s shuttle programme paved the way for a new era in space
A decade after its retirement, NASA’s iconic space shuttle programme is succeeded by burgeoning commercial space crew initiatives that have built on its legacy.
Ten years ago today, the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the final time, signalling the end of an era for United States space agency NASA. The iconic orbiter that was synonymous with space travel had finally retired.
Without another means of sending American astronauts into space, NASA turned to Russia to safely deliver its astronauts to the International Space Station and back. That partnership flourished for nearly a decade until NASA came up with a new plan: hire commercial companies to build spaceships capable of transporting its astronauts.
In this new era of space travel, NASA would no longer build the vehicles, but would instead book rides on private spacecraft.
To that end, in 2014, the US space agency selected two different companies to construct its future space taxis — Elon Musk’s SpaceX and aeroplane maker Boeing. Both have built on the shuttle programme’s legacy.
Ten years after its final fight, here’s a look back at how the shuttle helped shape our ideas about humans in space from some of the astronauts it carried.
NASA debuted its space shuttle following the glory days of the Apollo era. A magnificent machine, the winged craft — which launched like a rocket and landed like a plane — was capable of flying multiple times.
In total, NASA sent five of these flying machines into space: Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavor (a sixth shuttle, the Enterprise, ran flight tests but never made it beyond Earth’s atmosphere). The “fab five” fleet of orbiters flew for three decades, changing the way we access space.
During that time, the International Space Station was built, astronauts became more than just military pilots, and many important satellites were launched, including the iconic Hubble Space Telescope.
“The shuttle was truly one of the most unique vehicles ever built,” Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who was the commander of the final shuttle mission, told Al Jazeera.
“Having an opportunity to stand next to a space shuttle is very special,” Ferguson, now a Boeing astronaut, added. “It’s pivotal for the country and for the world to be able to see the things we can do when we put our minds to it.”
The space shuttles flew 135 missions but were very expensive to launch and maintain. In contrast, the commercial crew vehicles of today are the most cost-effective human-rated spacecraft that NASA has acquired, fetching less than $7bn for two different spacecraft systems, according to an analysis of the US space agency’s data by the non-profit Planetary Society.
In comparison, the space shuttle cost more than $27bn to develop (second only to Apollo) and the shuttles were not without risk, as evidenced by the loss of both the Challenger and the Columbia in 1986 and 2003.
NASA decided to embark on a new path, sending its fleet of space emissaries out across the country to inspire the next generation of engineers and rocket scientists.
“Human spaceflight has a purpose,” Ferguson said. “We explore, we study, and we also inspire the next generation of people to do incredible things.”
The rise of commercial space travel
Well before the shuttle’s wheels touched down during that final mission in 2011, NASA knew it was headed on a different path.
Elon Musk had founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of eventually launching humans into space. And Boeing was already a major player in the aerospace industry.
In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2bn contract and SpaceX a $2.6bn one to embark on a quest to build NASA’s next space taxis.
To that end, NASA selected a crew of its astronauts to work directly with SpaceX and Boeing and lend their expertise to building the best possible crewed vehicles.
Ferguson joined Boeing after leaving the astronaut office and became the first private astronaut. He helped design the Starliner spacecraft, which will launch on its second uncrewed mission later this month.
“I wasn’t sure if I’d stay in human spaceflight,” said Ferguson. “But to have a chance to help design one, it was just an incredible opportunity. It’s awesome to see something you helped design take shape.”
During the 10-day mission, the craft will fly to the International Space Station, dock, and then return home. The company originally launched its Starliner spacecraft in December 2019 but failed to reach the space station after the vehicle experienced an anomaly in flight.
SpaceX, which built its Crew Dragon capsule, has launched three astronaut missions to date. The company became the first private spaceflight company to launch humans into orbit, returning human spaceflight to US soil for the first time since 2011.
That flight, called Demo-2, blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 30, 2020. Strapped inside were two NASA astronauts: Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. The duo tested out the vehicle’s system in flight, even manually controlling the spacecraft as it made its way to the International Space Station.
Following a two-month stay at the orbital outpost, the two astronauts returned to Earth, splashing down in the Gulf Coast for the first time since the Apollo programme.
Their mission was a huge success and proved that NASA’s commercial partners had what it takes to start sending astronauts on a regular basis. The first operational flight was ordered for November 2020 and included the first international partner — Japan.
Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency was soon joined by two other international partners: Akihiko Hoshide of Japan and Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency.
These two astronauts, along with Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough of NASA, make up the Crew-2 group of astronauts that most recently launched to the space station in April 2021.
Before launch, Pesquet and Hoshide both expressed their excitement.
“For Shane and I, it’s going to be our third spacecraft we’re leaving Earth with,” Hoshide said during a news briefing. “We’re looking forward to the rumble and the G forces pushing on our chests.”
“I’m looking forward to actually riding on it,” Pesquet said of the Crew Dragon spacecraft.
“And seeing the differences between it and Soyuz,” referencing Russia’s go-to spacecraft.
Jan Worner, former director-general of the European Space Agency, expressed the ESA’s confidence in both SpaceX and NASA’s commercial crew programme as a whole.
ESA has astronauts booked on the next two flights, including the Crew-3 mission that SpaceX is planning to launch in October.
Once Boeing successfully completes its second orbital flight test, the company will launch its first crew. That flight, called CFT-1, is slated to launch later this year.
Sandy Magnus, a former NASA astronaut who also flew on the final shuttle mission, told Al Jazeera that the current vehicles being launched in space are part of the shuttle programme’s legacy.
“You can see the shuttles in museums and then watch the vehicles they helped inspire actually launch people,” Magnus said.
Nicole Stott, a former NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle, says she hopes that one day, one of NASA’s commercial partners will build a craft more similar to the shuttle as well.
That’s because it had capabilities that no other craft has right now, including the ability to service satellites in orbit, such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
“The shuttle was really special and had some unique capabilities,” Stott told Al Jazeera. “I would love to see another winged orbiter flying one day in the future.”
Luckily for Stott, there is one company out there that is working on a spaceplane design. Sierra Nevada Corporation is building a miniature version of the space shuttle called the Dream Chaser.
This up-and-coming commercial space company has snagged a lucrative NASA contract that will help send even more cargo to the International Space Station.
NASA opened up its second round of commercial cargo contracts in 2016, ultimately selecting three companies to deliver the goods: SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Nevada. Each company would be paid to deliver a certain number of cargo missions to the space station.
Both SpaceX and Northrop have already started delivering on their agreement, while Dream Chaser is still trying to get off the ground.
Similar to the shuttle that inspired its design, the Dream Chaser will launch on top of a rocket — in this case, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V or Vulcan Centaur — and land like an aeroplane on a runway at Kennedy Space Center.
The Dream Chaser will enable some research to be fast-tracked back to Earth instead of waiting for a ride home on a Dragon. If all goes according to plan, the first launch could take place sometime next year.