Inside the Collection

30 Years on Orbit

Illustrated design of Space shuttle logo text reds "1981-2011 Space Shuttle Program"
Image courtesy NASA

In my blog post on April 12, to mark the 50th anniversary of the first person in space, I referred to the fact that that same date was also the anniversary of the first flight of the US Space Transportation System, generally known as the Space Shuttle.
With the STS-134 mission coming soon, marking the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, the Space Shuttle program is drawing to a close after 30 years of operations.

Conceived in the 1960s and developed in the 70s, when the United States turned its attention away from the Apollo program and lunar exploration to focus on the development of a space infrastructure in Low Earth Orbit, the Space Transportation System was intended to provide a versatile “space truck” capable of carrying both crew and cargo into space and supporting a wide variety of orbital operations. The Shuttle was proposed as a vehicle that would reduce the cost of access to space through re-useable components and the amortisation of its development costs over a high number of flights per year. However, the competing technical requirements of its intended military and civilian roles, coupled with budget cuts during development, resulted in a vehicle that was only partially re-usable (the Orbiter and the Solid Rocket Boosters), with high maintenance requirements and inherent design flaws, that would prevent it from living up to the high flight rate and ambitious program goals originally planned.

Two images of a space shuttle taking off
Images courtesy of NASA

The image on the left side shows the Space Shuttle Columbia lifting off on its maiden flight, April 12, 1981 ( Note the white painted External Tank, later discontinued in order to save weight).

The image on the right shows the Space Shuttle Atlantis landing on the runway at Kennedy Space Centre at the completion of the STS-86 mission in 1997.

Despite its drawbacks, the Shuttle nevertheless is a “remarkable flying machine”, linking the technologies of rocketry and aviation in its ability to launch like a rocket and make a runway landing like an aircraft. It is capable of carrying crew of 8, together with 24 tonnes of cargo, into orbit and has been used to launch satellites (including Australia’s first Aussat domestic communications satellites) and interplanetary probes, build and service the International Space Station (ISS), transport crew to the Mir space station and ISS, conduct microgravity research on orbit with the European Space Agency’s Spacelab laboratory module and launch and service the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as carrying out classified US military missions.

Six Shuttle Orbiters have been built during the life of the program, each named after a famous exploration vessel: Enterprise (the atmospheric test vehicle, named after the iconic spacecraft from the television series Star Trek, as a result of a letter campaign by Star Trek fans, but also the name of several significant US ships); Columbia and Challenger, the first and second operational vehicles, which were both destroyed as a result of accidents stemming from the systems inherent design flaws, each with the loss of all seven crew members (Challenger was lost 73 seconds after launch in January 1986, while Columbia was destroyed 16 minutes before touchdown in 2003); Discovery (the Orbiter which made the most flights), Atlantis (which will make the final flight of the Shuttle program at the end of June) and Endeavour (built as a replacement for Challenger and named for Captain Cook’s vessel). On this year’s April 12 anniversary, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced the US museums that would become home to these four remaining Orbiters: unfortunately, museums outside the United States were not eligible to receive a Space Shuttle, so there was no possibility that one would make its way to the Powerhouse Museum.

Mock up of the forward section of a Shuttle Orbiter in the Powerhouse Museum Space Exhibition
Mock up of the forward section of a Shuttle Orbiter: Image Powerhouse Museum

But, as visitors to the Museum will know, the Powerhouse Space exhibition does feature a full size external mockup of the forward section of a Shuttle Orbiter. Originally installed for the opening of the first Powerhouse Space display in 1988, this mockup now houses the introductory section of the current exhibition’s “Living and Working in Space” theme. As a corporate contribution to Australia’s Bicentennary celebrations in 1988, the construction of this mockup was generously funded by the builders of the Space Shuttle Orbiter, Rockwell International (now part of the Boeing aerospace company, which also sponsored the construction of the Museum’s Space Station Habitation Module mockup).

Model of US Space Shuttle in its launch position
Model, US Space Shuttle, plastic / metal / wood, made by Pacific Miniatures Alhambra, California United States of America, 1981-1986, Collection Powerhouse Museum

To mark the announcement of their sponsorship in 1986, Rockwell also donated to the museum this 1:100 scale model of the Space Transportation System, showing the Orbiter, External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters in their launch configuration. Constructed by Pacific Miniatures, California, this model (one of three in different scales held in the Museum’s collections) is an excellent example of the type of gift model that companies use to promote their products. In the 1980s and 90s, it decorated the Director’s office and was recently displayed in The 80s are Back’s timeline section.

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