Fire in the hole

This is the third in a four-part series on the construction of America’s first space shuttle in 1979 and its impact on human space flight.

Security is tight at Pad 39A. This is where Columbia is scheduled to launch in November 1979, seven months from now. (It will launch seventeen months later, in 1981.) While we’ve worn our security badges all day, to enter the pad area we must leave them on a large board by the guardhouse.

“It’s like coming home,” says George Diller, the public relations contractor working for NASA. “Just like in the old says of Apollo.”

Cape Canaveral 72Why leave our badges? “In case of fire or explosion on the pad, they know who’s up there, and who didn’t come back.”

Diller commandeers an elevator and we ride the orange and gray Fixed Service Structure until we tower 247 feet above the flame trench, clearly visible as the Mobile Launcher Platform and shuttle have yet to arrive. Flames have blasted the trench black, turning its sandstone walls to glass. Parts of the tower remain from the days when all Apollo launches except one blasted off from Pad 39A.

Affixed to the tower is the Rotating Service Structure, a jumble of tubes and girders that contain the payload change out room. The payload canister is placed in the change out hold, the service structure rotated on a railroad track to mate with the cargo bay of the shuttle and the payload transferred.

When the shuttle is ready, giant crawler transporters will lift the Mobile Launch Platform from the Vehicle Assembly Building and trundle eleven million pounds of shuttle and platform 3.5 miles to Pad 39A, where Columbia will undergo outdoor tests. Then, at T minus 3.5 seconds, water will flood the deck of the launch platform to suppress the roar that might damage the cargo, pouring 900,000 gallons a minute through the flames and into the trench below.

Cargo bay loader 72The shuttle will take off vertically, with both the solid booster rockets and three orbiter engines firing. The boosters will separate at an altitude of twenty-five miles and descend by parachute for recovery. Columbia will jettison its external fuel tank as the craft enters orbit. The tank will fall to Earth but will not be reused, Diller says, because it is cheaper to build a thin tank and throw it away than a sturdy reusable one and burn the extra fuel to boost it into suborbital space.

Columbia will orbit at an altitude of 600 miles and stay aloft for seven to thirty days. It will reenter the atmosphere as most spacecraft do, at an angle of twenty-three degrees and a speed of 500 miles per hour. But a microwave beam landing system will trim the angle of descent to one degree. Columbia will glide to a powerless landing at 210 miles an hour on the 15,000-foot runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

The first four missions require Columbia to land on the air base runway, which provides extra room by way of an adjacent dry lake bed. After that, Columbia will land on the Kennedy Space Center’s 17,000-foot runway, which exceeds the length of the longest commercial aviation runway in the world, 14,727 feet, at JFK International in New York.

Once on the ground at Cape Canaveral, Columbia will be towed into the Orbiter Processing Facility, where crews will remove residual fuels and payloads and refurbish heat tiles, landing gear, propulsion and other systems.

To explore new worlds
What is the future of the space shuttle program? Good, at this point in 1979. Each orbiter is designed to fly up to 100 missions and NASA has three more orbiters planned after Columbia: Challenger (under construction with a delivery date of 1982), Discovery and Atlantis. Columbia will make the first fifteen flights and then alternate with Challenger.

Astronauts John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen are schedule to fly Columbia on its first orbital voyage on November 9, 1979, but NASA insiders say the space agency won’t launch until December at the earliest. (They’re right. The maiden flight won’t take place until April 12, 1981, exactly twenty years after the first human space flight, when the Vostok 3KA spacecraft powered cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit.)

The trip for Young will be nothing new. He flew in Gemini 3 in 1965, commanded Gemini 10 in 1966, flew in Apollo 10 in 1969 and commanded Apollo 16 in 1972. Onboard Columbia he will serve as commander. Crippen, an Air Force research pilot, will serve as shuttle pilot.

Columbia will carry instruments to measure the orbiter’s performance and stresses during takeoff and landing. In future missions NASA has its own form of Henry Kissinger-style shuttle diplomacy. One of Columbia’s missions will be to place the European-financed Spacelab into orbit. Spacelab will provide facilities for four specialists, who will conduct experiments in medicine, manufacturing, astronomy and pharmaceuticals. They will look for purer alloys, lenses and drugs whose manufacture can benefit from the zero-gravity environment of space.

NASA is also stating that with a force of three G’s on liftoff, any healthy person should be able to shuttle into space, opening a new world for those outside the scientific realm.

Tomorrow: Thirty years later, George Diller, the voice of space shuttle launches, talks about the legacy of the program and the future of human space flight.