Jason DavisJul 08, 2016

Five years after Atlantis' last launch, five favorite stories about the shuttle program

Five years ago today, space shuttle Atlantis lifted off for the final time, kicking off one last cargo run to the International Space Station the shuttles were so vital in constructing.

"The final liftoff of Atlantis!" exclaimed NASA TV commentator George Diller, as the shuttle cleared the launch tower. "On the shoulders of the space shuttle program, America will continue the dream."

I recently asked Diller what he meant by that phrase. He said it was an allusion to all the science astronauts could now conduct aboard the completed ISS, which will help realize the dream of sending humans to deep space and Mars.

Though the space shuttles are now five years distant in NASA's rear-view mirror, the outcome of that dream won't be determined for many years. But what about the dream behind the shuttle program itself? 

Much has been written about the ups and downs of the space shuttle era. On the five-year anniversary of Atlantis' final launch, here are five favorite pieces of writing (well, technically, six) that helped shape my thinking about the space shuttle program. I didn't include anything specific about the Challenger or Columbia accidents, but I'd recommend starting with the official government commission reports for a deep dive on those.

The final liftoff
The final liftoff Space shuttle Atlantis blasts off for the final time on July 8, 2011, kicking off the last mission of a three-decade program.Image: NASA MSFC

The chronicles

I've noted before that I'm a fan of the "Outward Odyssey: A People's History of Spaceflight" series of books from the University of Nebraska Press. After the shuttles retired, two novels were released chronicling the program.

"Bold They Rise," by David Hitt and Heather Smith, covers the shuttle flights up through the Challenger accident. "Wheels Stop," by Rick Houston, handles the rest.

It's a tough task to recap all 135 shuttle missions, but Hitt, Smith and Houston make it doable by peppering the books with dozens of interviews, including personal recollections from astronauts, program managers, engineers and flight controllers. Many of the missions are grouped together by type (classified flights, for instance), making easier-to-digest narratives. These two books are a great tribute to the multitude of people that helped make the program a reality.

The clairvoyant critique

In April 1980, a year before the maiden launch of space shuttle Columbia, Washington Monthly magazine published a scathing take on the program by Gregg Easterbrook, titled "The Spruce Goose of Outer Space." The article was featured on the magazine's cover with the titillating headline "Beam us out of this death trap, Scotty!"

The article no longer seems to exist on Washington Monthly's website, but you can still read a copy in the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. Some of Easterbrook's occasional NASA pieces are prone to overreach, but this sardonic, far-ranging critique is stunningly accurate in predicting the myriad of ways the shuttle program would not live up to original expectations.

The piece also contains a line that has stuck with me for years, which still makes me laugh:

Surely you remember that fabled day in 1926 when Robert Goddard, father of modern rocketry, lit off the first liquid fueled rocket engine, sending a device the size and shape of a coat tree screaming into the low clouds over Auburn, Massachusetts? Remember how he called to his wife, "Come quick, dear, I've invented the expendable launch vehicle!"

The planetary perspective

I read Bruce Murray's "Journey into Space" shortly after I began writing for The Planetary Society in 2011. Murray co-founded the Society with Carl Sagan and Louis Friedman, and wrote this book shortly after his tenure as the director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory ended.

"Journey into Space" is primarily a short history of planetary exploration, but it also describes the impact—both positive and negative—the shuttle had on NASA's science programs. Besides creating a funding squeeze, the shuttle was NASA's only transportation option at one point, which delayed or cancelled some missions and forced redesigns of others.

The technical resource

The "NASA Space Shuttle Owners' Workshop Manual (1981 onwards, all models)" is a geeky shuttle technical explainer written in the style of the well-regarded Haynes automotive manuals. Disappointingly, the manual doesn't detail a complete space shuttle teardown and rebuild, but it still touches on virtually every technical and operational aspect of the orbiter, external tank and solid rocket boosters.

For an all-in-one technical book with copious illustrations and photographs, it's still my favorite book on the shuttle. It sits proudly on my bookshelf next to my Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual.

The children's book

There are definitely more updated children's books out there than this one, but my childhood choice was the aptly named "Space Shuttle," by Kate Petty, published in 1984. 

I still have my copy, and it's now on my almost-four-year-old daughter's bookshelf. Despite being written for beginning readers, "Space Shuttle" is actually quite technical, describing everything from an OMS burn to the reason the payload bay doors are opened shortly after the shuttle reaches orbit.

But my favorite line is: "Within a week the shuttle can be ready to take off again." In retrospect, that innocent line almost stings more than any of Easterbrook's words.

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