First and Last Launches of the Space Shuttle

Well spotted. The internal photo isn’t a picture of the Space Shuttle. It’s one of the European Space Agency‘s (ESA) first astronauts, Wubbo Ockels, inside the ESA Spacelab D1 in the Shuttle’s cargo bay (both pictures are courtesy of and copyright ©NASA).

ESA’s first astronaught was Ulf Merbold flying in Spacelab on STS-9.

I’m writing this piece now because today is to be the very last flight of a space shuttle. As I type, the launch is scheduled for about 5 hours’ time, weather at Cocoa Beach permitting.

Spacelab was developed in parallel and in conjunction with NASA’s space shuttle to be the orbiting laboratory in the Shuttle’s cargo bay, as a follow-on for Skylab and prior to the ISS (International Space Station).

The Spacelab programme was run from ESA’s ESTEC facility (European Space Technology Centre) in Noordwijk, The Netherlands. I worked at ESTEC all through the 1970s – not on Spacelab but on different communications satellites.

I had many friends and colleagues who were working on Spacelab. A number of them were American, having previously worked on the life-support systems for the Apollo missions to the Moon. My next door neighbour was the quality manager for the Spacelab programme.

Being so close to the ins and outs of the shuttle development programme revealed all sorts of interesting snippets of information. The most disturbing surrounded the decisions taken to prevent the programme going way over budget and significantly slipping the first launch date. In a nutshell, the testing at component, equipment, subsystem and system levels had to be pared back.

On the day of that first Columbia launch I sweated -literally. I seriously feared that that there might be just one little thing that hadn’t been picked up in testing and would jeopardise the mission. My relief (and disbelief?) at a perfect first launch and mission is hard to describe. YES, YES, YES – you did it, guys!

So, my best wishes and congratulations now go to the thousands of people who have worked on the Shuttle and Spacelab programmes over some 30 years. Good on’Ya! And for today’s Atlantis crew – God speed and God bless.

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