The Space Shuttle has proven itself one of the most flexible space vehicles ever flown. Most assuredly, the range of possibilities for operations in orbit expanded dramatically with the launch of Columbia in 1981. Through the end of the program in 2011 there will be 135 Space Shuttle missions, including the Challenger and Columbia accidents, and the range of activities on each of these has been impressive.
Undoubtedly, and this is a significant aspect of the shuttle’s flexibility, its size and capability greatly expanded the opportunity for human spaceflight. From a crew of three for Apollo missions, the shuttle routinely flew seven, and by the end of the program the number of astronauts flown aboard shuttles will be more than 280.
Accordingly, among other notable developments, the shuttle allowed NASA to expand the astronaut corps beyond the white male test pilots who had exclusive domain during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo eras.
The shuttle enabled an expansion of the astronaut complement to non-pilots and to women and minorities. As all know, in June 1983 Sally K. Ride, a NASA scientist-astronaut, became the first American woman to fly in space aboard STS-7, and in August 1983 Guion S. Bluford became the first African American astronaut to fly on STS-8.
The shuttle era also saw flights by people who were not truly astronauts. NASA inaugurated both a payload specialist program to fly individuals associated with specific experiments as well as a “Space Flight Participant Program” aimed at allowing non-scientists or engineers to experience orbital flight. The first person was a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Challenger accident in January 1986, but a journalist and perhaps a poet were also possibilities for future missions. Notably, educator Barbara Morgan has flown, along with several other educator astronauts.
In addition, astronauts from many other nations flew aboard the shuttle, including astronauts from Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Switzerland. This democratization of human spaceflight was a major attribute of the shuttle era, and the result of its flexibility as a space vehicle.
It also led to what many view as abuses of the system as politicians flew on the shuttle. Senator Jake Garn (R-Utah) and Representative Bill Nelson (D-Florida) both left Congress long enough to fly on the shuttle in late 1985 and early 1986, respectively. Critics accused NASA of pandering to Congress and other constituencies for support by offering such perquisites to a carefully selected few. Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau skewered Garn with a succession of appearances. In one, he showed Garn rehearsing memorable statements that he might make from orbit. He rejected all of them until he decided upon, “One giant leap towards approving the 1986 NASA budget.” Despite such criticisms, the mission went forward.
After his flight, Nelson offered this assessment of the space program: “If America ever abandoned her space ventures, then we would die as a nation, becoming second-rate in our own eyes, as well as in the eyes of the world….Our prime reason for commitment can be summed up as follows…space is our next frontier.”
Of course, the most famous instance of a politician flying was the return to flight of John Glenn in 1998 aboard STS-95. While this was clearly a favor for a valued Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, it was also at some level recognition of Glenn’s life of sacrifice and courage as a Marine combat pilot and Mercury astronaut.
Walter Cronkite, who came out of retirement to cover this mission, perhaps summed it up best when he said, “as far as I’m concerned, John Glenn is a hero and he can do pretty much whatever he wants.”
It is obvious that the flexibility of the Space Shuttle as a human space vehicle has been both a positive and a negative over time.