Endeavour had just landed to conclude STS-68, while Columbia was perched on a NASA 747 from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on its way to Palmdale, Calif., for major modification and maintenance work. (NASA Photo by Tony Landis) › View Larger Image
Saluting the Shuttle
The familiar double boom signifying the return of a space shuttle from space thrilled people for more than 30 years.
At Edwards Air Force Base and Dryden, the noise was commonplace during the early years of the shuttle program. Edwards was the main landing site for the space shuttles as the new space transportation system was tested and regular space operations began. Later in the program, Edwards and Dryden remained active as the backup-landing site when weather at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., was unfavorable.
Dryden played an important role in the shuttle program from its earliest stages. The space shuttle prototype Enterprise was flown at the center in a 1977 series of flight tests that evaluated glide and landing characteristics of the 100-ton vehicles.
The first NASA 747 shuttle carrier aircraft, or SCA, was subsequently used to launch the prototype Enterprise and both SCAs ferried shuttles back to Kennedy.
In fact, before the orbiters flew into space, four of the five space shuttles were towed from Rockwell International (later purchased by The Boeing Company) facilities at Air Force Plant 42 to Dryden to be mated to the NASA 747 for transport to Florida. It was only on the completion of the final orbiter, Atlantis, that the shuttle came directly from the factory atop the SCA.
When the first space shuttle mission concluded, a lakebed full of spectators greeted Columbia. When Columbia completed the fourth space shuttle mission on July 4, 1982, then President Ronald Reagan and NASA Administrator James M. Beggs were on hand, as well as a base-wide crowd of about 500,000 people.
Between the first orbital mission in 1981 and the final one in July 2011, Dryden hosted 54 of the 133 space shuttle landings.
More than a decade before Enterprise flew, Dryden was involved with the space shuttle program. Dryden pilots and engineers tested and proved concepts on research aircraft that provided information used in developing the shuttle's design as well as its thermal protection and flight control systems.
Early concept vehicles called lifting body aircraft were used to validate aerodynamic information that reinforced design elements used in development of the shuttles. Those data led directly to NASA's decision to build the orbiters without air-breathing jet engines, which would have been used during descent and landing operations and would have added substantially to vehicle weight and complexity as well as to program costs.
Dryden's work with the rocket-powered X-15 aircraft, considered one of the most successful flight research programs in history, also contributed directly to the space shuttle program. The X-15 program provided a vast amount of information on aerodynamics, structures, thermal properties, flight controls and human physiology that was key to decisions made during early stages of shuttle development. It also was the first aircraft to fly to space and return to Earth to fly again. Additionally, Dryden aircraft were used in research on the shuttle tiles that protect the orbiter and crew against the heat of re-entry to Earth.
Dryden conducted research flights from 1972 to 1985 using the first aircraft equipped with a digital flight control system, the F-8 Digital Fly-By-Wire. That project had direct applications used in developing a safer, digital fly-by-wire control system for the shuttle flight control system.
The orbiters were key to building and resupplying the International Space Station. They delivered the Hubble Space Telescope to space and twice completed missions to fix and upgrade it, and launched NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Individual descriptions of the orbiters on the pages that follow will include many more shuttle program highlights.
A few of the hundreds of technologies developed for space travel that have benefited people on Earth include artificial hearts, home insulation, infrared camera development used in fire fighting, materials for prosthetics, and biodegradable lubricants.
The space shuttle program also saw tragedy. Two crews perished during the 30-year program in separate shuttle tragedies – Challenger's loss on Jan. 28, 1986, and Columbia's on Feb. 1, 2003. The sacrifices of the brave crewmembers are recognized in a special tribute in this salute to the shuttle program.
Dryden supported the research done to return the shuttles to service following Columbia's loss. Divots were created on the orbiters when air was trapped under the foam on the shuttle's external fuel tank and conditions on launch caused the delicate tiles' adhesive to fail, resulting in a section of foam popping off of the tank. Dryden's F-15B was used for the divot tests. Discovery completed the first return-to-flight mission with a landing at Dryden on Aug. 9, 2005.
The space shuttles were the first reusable spacecraft to carry humans to orbit, and greatly expanded the world's knowledge. They inspired adults and children alike, proved the resiliency of the nation in adverse situations, instilled in Americans a sense of awe for something larger than themselves and generated optimism for the future. The last mission is safely on the ground, but the contributions of the shuttle program will continue to have people thinking about the stars – and beyond.