|The Rockets of NASA|
|Inventions of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration|
This rare view of two Space Shuttle orbiters simultaneously on launch pads at the Kennedy Space center was taken on September 5, 1990. The Orbiter Columbia is shown in the foreground on pad 39A, where it was being prepared for a launch (STS-35) the next morning. This launch ended up being delayed until December 1990. In the background, the orbiter Discovery sits on pad 39B in preparation for an October liftoff on STS-41.
After a gap of six years, NASA returned to human spaceflight in 1981, with the advent of the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle's first mission, STS-1, took off on April 12, 1981, demonstrating that it could take off vertically and glide to an unpowered airplane-like landing. On STS-6, during April 4-9, 1983, F. Story Musgrave and Donald H. Peterson conducted the first Shuttle EVA, to test new spacesuits and work in the Shuttle's cargo bay. Sally K. Ride became the first American woman to fly in space when STS-7 lifted off on June 18, 1983, another early milestone of the Shuttle program.
On January 28, 1986 a leak in the joints of one of two Solid Rocket Boosters attached to the Challenger orbiter caused the main liquid fuel tank to explode 73 seconds after launch, killing all 7 crew members. The Shuttle program was grounded for over two years, while NASA and its contractors worked to redesign the Solid Rocket Boosters and implement management reforms to increase safety. On September 29, 1988, the Shuttle successfully returned to flight. Through mid-1998, NASA has safely launched65 Shuttle missions since the return to flight. These have included a wide variety of scientific and engineering missions. There are four Shuttle orbiters in NASA's fleet: Atlantis, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour.
Toward a Permanent Human Presence in Space
The core mission of any future space exploration will be humanity's departure from Earth orbit and journeying to the Moon or Mars, this time for extended and perhaps permanent stays. A dream for centuries, active efforts to develop both the technology and the scientific knowledge necessary to carry this off are now well underway. The next generation of launch vehicles taking us from the Earth into orbit are being developed right now. The X-33, X-34, and other hypersonic research projects presently underway will help to realize routine, affordable access to space in the first decades of the twenty-first century.
An initial effort in this area was NASA's Skylab program in 1973. After Apollo, NASA used its huge Saturn rockets to launch a relatively small orbital space workshop. There were three human Skylab missions, with the crews staying aboard the orbital workshop for 28, 59, and then 84 days. The first crew manually fixed a broken meteoroid shield, demonstrating that humans could successfully work in space. The Skylab program also served as a successful experiment in long-duration human spaceflight.
In 1984, Congress authorized NASA to build a major new space station as a base for further exploration of space. By 1986, the design depicted a complex, large, and multipurpose facility. In 1991, after much debate over the station's purpose and budget, NASA released plans for a restructured facility called Space Station Freedom. Another redesign took place after the Clinton administration took office in 1993 and the facility became known as Space Station Alpha.
Then Russia, which had many years of experience in long-duration human spaceflight, such as with its Salyut and Mir space stations, joined with the U.S. and other international partners in 1993 to build a joint facility that became known formally as the International Space Station (ISS). To prepare for building the ISS starting in late 1998, NASA participated in a series of Shuttle missions to Mir and seven American astronauts lived aboard Mir for extended stays.
The Science of Space
In addition to major human spaceflight programs, there have been significant scientific probes that have explored the Moon, the planets, and other areas of our solar system. In particular, the 1970s heralded the advent of a new generation of scientific spacecraft. Two similar spacecraft, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, launched on March 2, 1972 and April 5, 1973, respectively, traveled to Jupiter and Saturn to study the composition of interplanetary space. Voyagers 1 and 2, launched on September 5, 1977 and August 20, 1977, respectively, conducted a "Grand Tour" of our solar system.
In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit around the Earth. Unfortunately, NASA scientists soon discovered that a microscopic spherical aberration in the polishing of the Hubble's mirror significantly limited the instrument's observing power. During a previously scheduled servicing mission in December, 1993, a team of astronauts performed a dramatic series of spacewalks to install a corrective optics package and other hardware. The hardware functioned like a contact lens and the elegant solution worked perfectly to restore Hubble's capabilities. The servicing mission again demonstrated the unique ability of humans to work in space, enabled Hubble to make a number of important astronomical discoveries, and greatly restored public confidence in NASA.
Several months before this first HST servicing mission, however, NASA suffered another major disappointment when the Mars Observer spacecraft disappeared on August 21, 1993, just three days before it was to go into orbit around the red planet. In response, NASA began developing a series of "better, faster, cheaper" spacecraft to go to Mars.
Mars Global Surveyor was the first of these spacecraft; it was launched on November 7, 1996, and has been in a Martian orbit mapping Mars since 1998. Using some innovative technologies, the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft landed on Mars on July 4, 1997 and explored the surface of the planet with its miniature rover, Sojourner. The Mars Pathfinder mission was a scientific and popular success, with the world following along via the Internet.
Over the years, NASA has continued to look for life beyond our planet. In 1975, NASA launched the two Viking spacecraft to look for basic signs of life on Mars; the spacecraft arrived on Mars in 1976 but did not find any indications of past or present biological activity there. In 1996 a probe from the Galileo spacecraft that was examining Jupiter and its moon, Europa, revealed that Europa may contain ice or even liquid water, thought to be a key component in any life-sustaining environment. NASA also has used radio astronomy to scan the heavens for potential signals from extraterrestrial intelligent life. It continues to investigate whether any Martian meteorites contain microbiological organisms and in the late 1990s, organized an "Origins" program to search for life using powerful new telescopes and biological techniques.
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