Chapter 2

Home Front

This essay is a review of:

The Story of the Space Shuttle

by David M. Harland

NASA: Need Another Shuttle Also
by Austin Leung

For centuries, humans have cultivated, civilized, and explored the planet to exhaustion; instead, as time progressed, people began exploring a new frontier and imagining “a vision of the human colonisation of space.”1 David Harland, author of The Story of the Space Shuttle, claimed that the newly invented space shuttle in the 1980s was an instrumental factor in the colonization and exploration of the mysterious frontier of outer space. Through countless trials and errors, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed the space shuttle in 1981, shifting the focus in space travel from singular human transport to large-scale projects, such as satellites and telescopes. Through the shuttle’s revitalized life in the 1980s and its unfortunate fall near the end, David Harland asserts that although the seemingly short lifespan of the space shuttle indicated an inconsequential and inhibited legacy, it marked a new age in the replacement of former rockets and the implementation of a space transportation system.  

Originating in 1958 with the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, NASA was created to combat the technological advances of the Soviets. In 1961, the Soviet Union sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space, and the United States sent in their own astronaut, Alan Shephard, a couple weeks later. During these earlier experimental flights, NASA chose to utilize missiles for the spacecrafts, due to the aerodynamic design and the “limited mass that a contemporary rocket could place in orbit”2. However, these missiles had an issue with their insulation during the period of thermal stress of hypersonic re-entry of orbit. As scientists attempted solving this problem, they realized that “a large, high lift-to-drag aircraft can accommodate the thermal stresses of flying hypersonically more easily than [a missile] because the heating rate and the total heat load are functions of mass and size.”3 As a result, the space shuttle was born. Designing the shuttle was largely guided by requirements of the Air Force, due to NASA’s need to gain support from the Department of Defense in order to continue their project. The Air Force required the shuttle to be able to fly at short notices, be able to assist in military missions, and be sizable enough to carry large instruments, modules, or satellites, hence its nickname “space truck.” Furthermore, the former issue of thermal conduction of the missiles was diminished by a flash evaporator system, which shed excess heat during periods of high activity, and a Thermal Protection System, which was a ceramic coating that radiated surface heat extremely effectively. As a result, with the installation of the heat systems, external tanks, and orbital maneuvering system, the basic skeleton of the Shuttle was complete and ready to be tested.  

The early years of the space shuttle were filled with public and government support despite mechanical errors in its test flights. The shuttle became the first United States spacecraft to carry a crew on its first test flight with the launch of the Space Shuttle Enterprise. In 1982, amidst the test flights of the Columbia, President Reagan declared the shuttle to be political and operational, granting NASA more commercial operations and extending their freedom under the government’s approval. As a result, a young astronaut named John Young was able to pilot the historical STS-9 Spacelab mission in 1983, making the mission the first “to fly payload specialists, to fly a foreign astronaut … and to exploit the orbiter’s maximum duration.”4 Despite the success with the STS-9 mission, many NASA officials were feeling discouraged after the inability for the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite network to expand, which inhibited satellite construction. After realizing the lowered morale, in 1984, President Reagan ordered NASA to build a space station, giving the space agency a new strategic mission whilst promoting its current objective – increasing flight rate of the shuttle. The Air Force became more involved in the shuttle missions during this time, but they remained very tight-lipped over their objectives and payloads. For example, the Air Force “intended to have one of its own officers on each classified mission in order to avoid revealing data about the payload to the NASA astronauts.”5 This attitude incited public distress, as this was a deviation from NASA’s former, open-minded policies. The space agency faced a slow descent in public appeal and technological advances in the mid-1980s due to changing objectives and mechanical errors in their shuttles.

Although the space shuttle evoked massive public support in its beginning years, the newfound spacecraft suffered a multitude of losses in its later years. In 1985, Mission STS-51B was initiated with the space shuttle Challenger. In this mission, NASA attempted to experiment with the microgravity environment and observe the effect of weightlessness on two monkeys and twenty-four rodents, drawing protestors from Animal Rights groups. Adding to the growing discontent with NASA’s studies in Mission STS-51B, one of the largest space shuttle accidents took place on Pad 39B in 1986. The temperature on the pad “fell so low that there was a threat to the water pipes.”6 The unusual drop in temperature contributed to the formation of icicles on the shuttle itself, which would loosen and damage the shuttle’s insulation during takeoff. As a result, NASA decided to delay the flight; however, engineers at Thiokol, which was the company in charge of the mission, “expressed doubts about the likely resilience of the rubber O-rings that would have to seal the joints.”7 The mission was later overridden by Joseph Kilminster, the company’s vice-president, leaving engineers in dismay. As the Challenger launched, there was no visible indication of any problems, but as the shuttle reached hypersonic speed to achieve orbit, flames appeared on the boosters, exploding the shuttle shortly after. The 1986 accident of the Challenger marked a monumental failure in the space agency’s pristine record: “After 25 years of launching astronauts on rockets, NASA had finally lost a crew.”8

Despite its failure in 1986, NASA was overall largely centralized on commercial prospects. NASA involved itself with many commercial companies, such as American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T), which launched the first commercial communications satellite, Telstar. Furthermore, in 1982, there were four test flights of the Columbia, carrying two HS-376 commercial satellites, which included the release of the SBS-3 satellite, which was the first satellite to be released from a shuttle. As time progressed, “the Shuttle released a total of 20 commercial satellites, all [serving] as communications relays.”9 Furthermore, the Department of Defense began utilizing the shuttle for increased military surveillance, designing the Missile Defense Alarm System, Global Positioning System (GPS), and eavesdropping “ferret” satellites. Thus, communications became a major component of the commercial satellite business, with the shuttle becoming the preferred carrier, amplifying its popularity. With all the gained interest in space, the shuttle was officially renamed the Space Transportation System in order to prove that it was utility and to build up more political support.  

Although David Harland emphasizes the extreme downfalls of the shuttle’s lifespan such as the last flight of the Columbia and the monumental accident of the Challenger, he paints a largely successful image of the shuttle as a catalyst and inspiration to great astronomical breakthroughs: “On 2004, President George W. Bush announced that the Shuttle would not be upgraded … By then, NASA must have designed a crew transport vehicle as part of a larger programme designed to initiate a new phase in the human exploration of the Solar System.”10 He also adds that the shuttle was not only a stepping stone, but also a revolutionary and essential aspect of space travel during its lifetime in the 1980s: “the Shuttle was … the universal spacecraft that was to replace all previous satellite rockets and crew-carrying spacecraft.”11 Furthermore, he juxtaposes the several failures and the overarching, beneficial legacy of the shuttle to further enhance its image. Thus, Harland claims that despite the evident failures that may have tarnished NASA’s reputation, the overall benefits of the shuttle on technological advancements and space travel remains undeniable.

Harland was an author and also a computer scientist, working on several important software relating to mathematical deduction. As a result of this former expertise, Harland utilizes a multitude of data and numbers to convey his point. Furthermore, he is an avid space historian, publishing over a dozen books on subjects such as Earth, Saturn, the Voyager, and the Apollo missions, adding to his credibility. During Harland’s life in the late 1900s, the space competition between the Soviet Union, as depicted through their launch of Sputnik, and the United States was a rigid battle. In the 1970s, the Soviets had already begun impacting Mars, leaving distaste in the American public. The tug-of-war between the Soviet Union and the United States from communist expansion to space exploration caused Harland to inadvertently idealize American space agencies and their advancements. Harland’s mathematical background and the struggle between the United States and the USSR unintentionally makes the shuttle’s story largely numerical with a tinge of American superiority.

The Story of the Space Shuttle has largely been praised for its scientific contributions and lauded for its comprehensive list of details from missions. For example, Reginald Turnill from Astronomy Now claimed the “Some of the early planning chapters are so detailed that it is hard going, but the actual flight includes every word that was said and reads as excitingly as a good novel..”12 Turnill also adds that the thorough nature of the book allows the readers to emulate the space flight: “One can relive the whole mission in 500 dense pages from lift-off.”13 Adding on, Geoff Willmetts from SFCrowsnest, commended Harland’s surplus of detail: “The detail of the Gemini power batteries explaining how hydrolysis was used is equally fascinating.”14 Both Turnill and Willmetts laud the excess of knowledge and detail in the book, providing little to no complaints on the content of the book. By having a mass of specifics, the book is able to provide an in-depth analysis in each mechanism of the shuttle and to simulate the emotions and the scenarios during the decade. Harland’s book is seen as an exceptional resource for space enthusiasts, containing an overstock of details and numerical content.

Throughout the book, Harland employs elements of language and structure to signify the large success of the shuttle. His use of juxtaposition between the failures and the successes easily creates an image of a tug-of-war between public opinion or governmental support and NASA’s objectives. Harland also manages to balance the right amount of scientific and manageable language for the reader, allowing both common citizens and professionals to grasp the history of the shuttle. Furthermore, Harland implements multiple sides to the events; for example, while describing the Challenger’s accident, Harland utilizes both family and public points of views, allowing the reader to emulate the feeling of the loss of a loved one: “Most of the small gathering were friends of the astronauts and this was the first launch they had witnessed. A few, believing that what they were seeing was a normal staging event, started to cheer, but this petered out as those who recognized the horrible cloud.”15 As a result, Harland balances the mathematical and emotional aspects of the shuttle’s rocky start, allowing the reader to comprehend the story of the shuttle through multiple lenses and diminishing bias.

Often times, the 1980s is viewed as a turn from the formerly popular liberalism to conservatism. However, Harland refutes this statement and refers to this decade as a political and scientific progression. With the introduction of the shuttle, the government veered from its former, conservative approach to space travel by missiles, and instead constructed large-scale, payload heavy shuttles: “Prior to the dawning of the Space Age, the winged [rocket] as a development of the aeroplane was the ‘obvious’ route to spaceflight.”16 The shuttle also marked the creation of space stations, satellites, and large-scale telescopes. Furthermore, President Reagan declaration of approval for the project, the Air Force’s increasing usage of satellites for military tracking, and the huge influx of commercial interest in the new prospect exemplify the shift in favor for modern and untraditional advancements. Although there were many liberal advancements, many people opposed the construction of the shuttle, claiming it was a waste of funds and research, hence generating a conservative mood amongst the public.  Despite the decade’s overall reputation and a majority of the public’s opinions as more conservative, Harland describes the space shuttle as a revolutionary aspect that counters this notion.

The space shuttle has often been thrown around in colloquial language as simply a general term for the aircrafts NASA use to travel to space. However, many don’t realize the insurmountable legacy that the late shuttle had on public opinion and worldwide funding in the astronomical frontier. The shuttle’s discontinuation did not show its failures but in fact, shows the amount of trials and errors that space engineers experienced for the revolutionary space shuttle to have such a monumental effect on the design of spacecrafts today.


1. Harland, David. The Story of the Space Shuttle. Spring-Praxis, 2004. 1.

2. Harland, David. 3.

3. Harland, David. 4.

4. Harland, David. 4.

5. Harland, David. 40.

6. Harland, David. 47.

7. Harland, David. 47.

8. Harland, David. 48.

9. Harland, David. 67.

10. Harland, David. 385.

11. Harland, David. 377.

12. Turnill, Reginald. “Apollo 12 On the Ocean of Storms.” Apollo 12 On the Ocean of Storms. Web. 24 May 2016.

13. Turnill, Reginald.

14. Willmetts, Geoff. “NASA Gemini: 19651966 (All Missions, All Models) Owners’ Workshop Manual by David Woods and David M. Harland (book Review).” SFcrowsnest. 2015. Web. 25 May 2016.

15. Harland, David. 48.

16. Harland, David. 377.