January's Monthly History Milestone: The shuttle is born

On April Fool’s Day 1969, just months shy of the landing of Apollo 11, Maxime A. Faget’s secretary telephoned a handful of Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) engineers, telling them to report to the third floor of Building 36. Most wondered if it was a prank. At 10 a.m., Faget walked in, carrying a garment bag that held a straight-winged balsa wood plane. Throwing the glider across the high bay, he declared, “We’re going to build America’s spacecraft. It’s going to launch like a rocket and land like an airplane.” And he added, “It’s going to be reusable.” That model represented Faget’s vision for NASA’s next major program, which became the space shuttle.

Faget built the model at MSC Director Robert R. Gilruth’s urging. A meeting at the Marshall Space Flight Center to discuss post-Apollo plans spurred his design. MSC engineers spent months working on the shuttle design and configuration. Faget’s design evolved as the political and economic realities of the time impacted the original configuration. Approved on Jan. 5, 1972, by President Richard Nixon—forty years ago this month—the shuttle went on to become NASA’s workhorse for thirty years. MSC, designated lead center for the Space Shuttle Program, also managed the Orbiter Project Office while Marshall oversaw the components that formed the shuttle’s stack: the solid rocket boosters, the solid rocket motors, the space shuttle main engines and the external fuel tank. Kennedy Space Center managed launch, landing and recovery operations for the program.

Details about the orbiters and the shuttle’s major elements were captured by the JSC History Office for the STS Recordation Oral History Project in 2010 and 2011. Center directors, project and program managers and engineers involved in the program provided technical details about the design, development, testing, processes, safety measures, accidents, operations and retirement of the program. To read more about this highly complex program and the stack see:

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/sts-r.htm. Also, an additional shuttle series is located at: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/ssp.htm.

Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Johnson Space Center, Houston

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