Tuesday, February 9, 2010

From Ship To Space Shuttle

This week's launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour marks one of the last in the shuttle program. Only four more launches are scheduled before the shuttle program is ended in September. The shuttle missions and the American space program in general have a long connection with the maritime world.

Atlantis. First launched in 1985, Atlantis will finish its career with a mission to the International Space Station in May. It was named for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's research vessel of the same name, which operated from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Challenger. Named for a British naval ship famous for an oceanographic expedition in the 1870s, Challenger was also the name of the Apollo 17 lunar module. This shuttle was launched in 1983 and was destroyed shortly after a launch three years later.

Columbia. In 1981, this Space Shuttle became the first to travel in space. Columbia was destroyed during re-entry following a mission in 2003. The shuttle was named for the sloop Columbia Rediviva, which, in the 1790s became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the world. It was also the name of the Apollo 11 Command Module.

Discovery. Several British exploration ships have held this name, including one of Captain James Cook's vessels in his 1776-1780 expedition to the Pacific. The RSS Discovery, built in 1901, was the last wooden three-masted ship built in Great Britain. It was the flagship of Robert Scott's Antarctic expedition, which included a young Ernest Shackleton. The Space Shuttle Discovery first flew in 1984, and its September 2010 mission will be the last one of the Shuttle program.

Endeavour. The Endeavour is the newest shuttle, built to replace Challenger and first launched in 1992. It was named for Captain Cook's flagship, which is why its name is spelled British style.

Enterprise. The first Space Shuttle never flew in space: it was constructed without engines or heat shields for atmospheric testing only. Originally scheduled to be named Constitution, the name was changed to Enterprise after a write-in campaign staged by fans of the television show Star Trek. Several actual American ships have borne the name, however, beginning with an armed sloop that patrolled Lake Champlain during the American Revolution. The current Enterprise is an aircraft carrier and the oldest commissioned vessel in the US Navy save for the sailing vessel USS Constitution.

Navy Recovery Vessels. In the years before the Shuttle program, US Navy ships were used to recover astronauts and vessels following splashdown. Most, like the USS Hornet that recovered the Apollo 11 crew, were aircraft carriers, although amphibious assault ("commando") carriers like the USS Iwo Jima that recovered the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission were also utilized. Some early mission were also recovered by destroyers or, in one case, a guided missile cruiser. The aircraft carrier USS Wasp holds the record, with five recoveries during the Gemini program.

Shuttle Recovery Vessels. One of the hallmarks of the Space Shuttle program was the reusability of its components, including the Solid Rocket Boosters, which would fall away when empty and be recovered for later use. Two vessels, the 176-foot Freedom Star (pictured above) and Liberty Star were both built in the early 1980s for that express purpose. Owned by NASA and staffed by civilian merchant mariners, the vessels are also scheduled to participate in the Constellation program. With the Obama Administration recently calling for that program to be cut, the fate of those ships and crews are in doubt.

Navy Astronauts. Three of the Mercury Seven astronauts were from the Navy: Alan Shepard, the first American in space; Scott Carpenter, and Wally Schirra. They were joined during the Gemini program by John Young, who would become one of NASA's most experienced astronauts, Pete Conrad, James Lovell (of Apollo 13 fame), Eugene Cernan and Richard Gordon. Neil Armstrong began his military career in the Navy, but was in the US Air Force when he flew in space. The Navy provided many more astronauts during the Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle programs including Kathryn Sullivan, a Navy reservist and oceanographer (she is also NOAA's first astronaut) who was the first American woman to walk in space.

Coast Guard Astronauts. The Space Shuttle program included two Coast Guardsmen: Bruce Melnick, Daniel Burbank.

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