The End of the Dangerous Space Shuttle Era

Ethan Wong

August 12, 2022

The Space Shuttle Program was one of the most famous spacecraft which sparked a new era of space transportation. The design was proposed and soon built after the ending of Saturn V’s generation and the Apollo Program in 1972. The Space Shuttle was first launched on April 12th, 1981, and went on to fly 135 flights in the span of 4 decades, until it officially signed off in 2011. After the Space Shuttle was no longer in use, American Astronauts were forced to fly up to the International Space Station in either Russian capsules or rockets designed later by a company known as SpaceX (the first being the Dragon capsule to deliver the first payload and humans to the ISS). But what caused, what had looked like an amazing spacecraft, to be shut down?

Originally, the space shuttle was made for a low-budget trip for astronauts to deliver payloads to Skylab, which was the first U.S. space station near Low-Orbit Earth. However, its purpose to help build the ISS, and other projects soon became appreciative, and it seemed like the space shuttle would be the road of future transportation for space exploration and advancements. However, many still preferred to use traditional rockets instead of the space shuttle. For objects such as satellites, it was much more practical to use rockets rather than an entire space shuttle, and the cost was exceedingly cheaper.

Not only was the space shuttle expensive, but there were also many dangers. It was assumed to be an extremely safe form of travel compared to rockets, and astronauts even ditched their pressure suits for the ride. However, Challenger proved everyone different when it exploded upon liftoff on live TV, killing all the astronauts on board, marking the first major incident of the space shuttle. The explosion was later found to have been caused by extremely cold temperatures, which deteriorated the rubber rings on one of the rocket boosters, allowing hot exhaust to escape from the rocket booster. This leak of gas continued throughout the liftoff, until a fire gradually came out of the hole and eroded struts, which helped to connect and stabilize the main engine which carried hydrogen and oxygen tanks for the engines. When all the struts broke, the boosters disconnected and caused its entire load to explode. The crew allegedly survived the takeoff until they crashed into the ocean, where cabin pressure began rising and oxygen deteriorated. And because the space shuttle was assumed to be safe, none of the astronauts had been properly equipped with pressure suits.

After this disaster, NASA continued to make changes in efforts to put the space shuttle to use. However, there was another disaster 17 years later aboard the Columbia Space Shuttle, which would ultimately end the space shuttle era for good. The space shuttle ended up breaking up and becoming destroyed by reentry on February 1st, 2003, killing all seven astronauts in the process. After multiple disasters, both ending in all of the astronauts’ deaths, NASA and the government decided to end the space shuttle traveling method, as the safety of the transportation could never be guaranteed. Today, astronauts take Russian Soyuz Capsules or commercialized SpaceX rockets to the ISS.