40 years ago: Time to dream again


            Better late than never. It’s December 29, 1980.  

            Although it seemed forever since March 1979 when the first true Space Shuttle, Columbia, was flown on the back if its 747 carrier aircraft to the Kennedy Space Center. Back then, it looked like a molting bird for all the missing heat-protection tiles yet to be installed, as if a warning of what was ahead.  Launch at that time was aimed for late 1979.

            Then came The Problem, discovered that June.   The silica tiles that form the Shuttle’s heat shield, nearly 31,000 custom shaped pieces, light weight but fragile, glued to felt strain pads against the aluminum skin of the Shuttle, were not bonded strong enough.  By about fifty percent, due to the nature of the fibers in the strain pads, which absorb any flexing of the aluminum skin.  The tiles required a painstaking process of “densification” and re-bonding.   The Shuttle vanished from the news for nearly two years, lost in a never-ending limbo, a hangar queen, a space-age Spruce Goose. 

            Only to emerge on this December day, flight-worthy at last, stacked with it’s white external fuel tank and twin solid boosters, rolled out on the same mobile launch platform that carried Apollo to the pad.   Moving at less than a mile per hour, it takes more than seven hours to reach the Pad 39-A, 3.5 miles away.  At this time launch was scheduled for March.  Flown by John Young and Robert Crippen, it will be the first time the first flight of a new vehicle has carried a crew.  They will ride the world’s first reusable spaceship through a two-day shakedown flight, gliding to a landing at Edwards Air Force Base, California.  If all goes well, Young and Crippen will become the first Americans in space since Apollo-Soyuz in 1975.  The long drought is approaching its end, and the spirit of the Apollo days wells up.

            Before it has flown, the Shuttle is already an iconic symbol of the future, of America.  The rollout of Columbia makes the cover of the January 12, 1981, issue of Time magazine.  “The Columbia seems out of this world even on Earth,” Time exclaims.  The magazine says, “Apollo capsules that went to the moon are Model T artifacts in comparison.”

            Columbia is hailed as the “DC-9 of space” that will open up the orbital frontier.  Time calls it, “the most ambitious and versatile spacecraft ever contrived.”  They proclaim, “We are now on the threshold of a new capability to investigate the universe.”

            It’s 1981, a time to dream again.

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