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COUNTDOWN TO DISASTER : Challenger's Last Flight : 4. FIRST FLIGHT : 'The Launch Will Be Guaranteed'

February 09, 1986

For all time, the first flight of the space shuttle is preserved in three freeze-frames: the hauntingly beautiful launch of Columbia into the early April morning of 1981, the bull's-eye landing in the high California desert two days later, and mission commander John W. Young throwing a triumphant fist in the air, celebrating the dawn of the shuttle age.

The ordinarily laconic astronaut had reason enough to let off steam and say in all earnestness, "We're not really too far, the human race, from going to the stars."

No other American space mission except the December, 1968, Apollo 8 flight around the moon had undertaken to break so much new ground with so little flight experience behind it.

Young and Robert L. Crippen rode into orbit using spacecraft engines never flown before, engines that had failed frequently and disastrously in early tests. They were the first ever to lift off a launch pad with solid rocket boosters, rockets which they could neither shut down nor discard. They flew a vehicle using a radically new system to protect them from blazing re-entry temperatures--fragile tiles glued to the orbiter's skin to withstand temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit on the spacecraft's nose and wings as they scorched down into the atmosphere. They were the first to bring an American spacecraft down on terra firma.

Gone were the days of parachuting backward into the sea to bob uncomfortably until fished out by a helicopter.

America had its new flagship on what John F. Kennedy had called the "New Ocean" of space. No longer was it bound to a wasteful necessity of destroying its spaceships in the process of using them.

Columbia, so NASA said, was the harbinger of a day when shuttles would fly into space more than once a week, making a journey to orbit as routine as a sojourn in Des Moines.

In the two years immediately following Columbia's tryout, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration planned more space flights than it had carried out in the two decades since Alan B. Shepard rode a diminutive Redstone rocket to the edge of space and thrilled the country with the report that he was "A-OK." On the books for the next dozen years were no less than 487 flights.

NASA had tied its string, its whole future, to the shuttle's tail, and so, to an important extent, had the U.S. Air Force.

Cost overruns have been enormous: From a 1972 projection of $5 billion the program has ballooned to today's reality of $18 billion. Schedules have slipped and costs have soared. Far from paying for itself, the shuttle was collecting only 24 cents from commercial and military customers for every dollar spent by NASA.

Even before the Challenger disaster, commercial customers were looking more favorably toward unmanned launches offered by a European consortium. The Pentagon, meanwhile, was moving to shift some of its business to unmanned rockets launched from California and had won approval to build 10 large unmanned rocket boosters to place military satellites in orbit.

NASA had believed that frequent flights would mean lower costs for paying customers. Low Earth orbit, in addition to being a scientific and military outpost, would become the ultimate suburban technology park where manufacturers would grow crystals, fashion perfect ball bearings and mass produce pharmaceuticals of unsurpassed purity.

But by the time Young and Crippen lifted off, their flight was nearly three years behind schedule. The program NASA dreamed of in the afterglow of Apollo had been reshaped by reality. The flight schedule NASA still considered official was widely held to be a fantasy.

From day one of the shuttle program, NASA's dreams had dwarfed its grasp.

Planners envisioned a fleet of 10 orbiters, 60 flights a month, even the prospect of their aerospace planes touching down at commercial airports.

NASA Associate Administrator George Meuller, the outspoken champion of space manufacturing, pointed to a day when shuttles would launch cargo for $5 per pound, compared to $100 to $150 for conventional rockets.

But in the end, the space agency was forced to accept higher operating costs down the road in order to get lower development costs and stay within the dictates of the Office of Management and Budget.

It therefore postponed and then abandoned the fly-back booster, opting for an orbiter with new, incredibly high-performance hydrogen engines and strap-on boosters that could be recovered and reused.

From these compromises flowed two decisions bearing heavily on the Challenger tragedy. To save weight, save money and increase payload, designers eliminated nose-mounted escape rockets from the orbiter plans.

Until then, every U.S. manned spacecraft had been equipped with a powerful rocket mounted at its tip, an escape device capable of pulling astronaut crew compartments to safety in the event of a booster explosion either on the launch pad or at any time during the flight to orbit.

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