The SR-71 Blackbird: A Story of Remarkable Innovation

Artist's illustration of the SR-71 aircraft
Computer-generated 3D illustration of the Strategic Reconnaissance Aircraft SR-71 Blackbird. Photo: iStock

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is one of history’s most iconic spy planes. Also known as the “Black Widow” for its unique appearance, this aircraft still stands as an impressive feat of aeronautical engineering. In fact, it holds many speed and altitude records that have yet to be broken, and there is much more than meets the eye with this plane…

The Origins of the SR-71 

U2 Spy Plane in the air
U2 Spy Plane. Photo: Wikipedia/USAF Public Domain

Before this immortal aircraft was developed, the United States relied on the famous U2 spycraft for its Cold War reconnaissance. On May 1, 1960, a U2 was spotted deep inside Russian territory, but the US was not concerned as they believed that this aircraft was impenetrable to Soviet air defenses due to its high-altitude flight. They were wrong. 

A Soviet V-750 surface-to-air missile shot down the spy plane. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, who took off from a secret US airbase in Pakistan, parachuted to the ground safely but was immediately captured by Soviet authorities and taken prisoner. 

He was later released after a mutual prisoner swap between the United States and Russia; however, it was quite clear that something else had to be done if the US wanted (and needed) to continue its reconnaissance over Russia and other foreign lands without the concern of the aircraft being shot down.

Corona Spy Satellite

Corona spy satellite illustration
Illustration of the Corona Spy Satellite. Photo: Wikipedia/National Reconnaissance Office, Public Domain

The United States began an ambitious project for U2’s successor. The Corona spy satellite program was one of the first. It proved amazingly successful in August of 1960 after it was able to photograph many parts of Soviet territory.

What’s even more amazing was that the pictures that the plane took was sent back to earth and successfully salvaged, resulting in an abundance of intelligence well needed as this cold war intensified. The Corona program ended in 1972.

A-12 Spy Plane

A-12 Prototype Spy Plane in the Air
A-12 Prototype. Photo: By U.S.Air Force – Defense Visual Information Center (DVIC)

The CIA contracted Lockheed to develop a new plane that would surpass the U2’s functionalities in every way. The Lockheed A-12  was born.

This prototype spawned some variants. The YF-12A Interceptor, which was designed to replace the F-106 Delta Dart Interceptor/ fighter, and the SR-71 Blackbird, designed not as a fighter jet, but as a high-speed reconnaissance aircraft.

The YF-12A was built and tested but the Air Force decided to go for the F-111 fighter/bomber; however, the SR-71 was commissioned and 32 Blackbirds were eventually built.

The SR-71 was outfitted with all the advanced concepts from its A-12 parent, as well as the necessary devices (cameras and supporting equipment) for its intelligence mission to fly over foreign territory (namely the Soviet Union). This plane was able to fly much higher than the U2 and it flew  four times faster. To this day, no aircraft has surpassed the speed of the SR-71 Blackbird.

Enter Skunk Works

Assembly line of the SR-71 Blackbird at Skunk Works
Assembly line of the SR-71 Blackbird at Skunk Works. Photo: Wikipedia Public Domain

This top secret R&D group within Lockheed Corporation began during WWII to research advanced fighter aircraft, but its true meaning did not materialize until after the U2 was shot down.

As mentioned, it was evident that a more sophisticated aircraft that would be able to avoid Soviet planes and missiles, as well as being less vulnerable to radar signatures was required, or to put it another way, this new prototype had to be faster, higher, and stealthier than any other aircraft currently in existence at the time. The Skunk Works design team was tasked with creating this advanced aircraft. 

Development of the SR-71

Pratt & Whitney Engine for the SR-71
The Pratt & Whitney J58 engine powered the SR-71 Blackbird. Photo: iStock

The design that Skunk Works had come up with was a radical break from conventional aircraft design. This plane would have a long, curved nose that would house a long-range camera and a shorter curved section behind that would house the pilot.

The idea behind this design was that it would significantly reduce the plane’s radar cross-section. Most of the aircraft’s volume would be behind the center of gravity, making the aircraft “lighter” from the perspective of radar. This would reduce the aircraft’s weight and make it fly even faster.

The plane would also be designed to minimize airflow, reducing drag and increasing speed. And all of this would be done with a plane that could carry almost 10,000 pounds of fuel and up to 10,000 pounds of payload. 

Its futuristic profile made it difficult to detect on radar. Even the black paint used, full of radar-absorbing iron, helped hide it’s existence from the Russian’s radar defenses. Due to the plane’s unique design, some engineers viewed it more of a spaceship than an aircraft. 

The mineral titanium was one of the main reasons for the SR-71’s success. This metal is almost as strong as steel, but lightweight enough not to allow the plane to fly and maneuver very well. Titanium is also able to withstand the enormous temperatures when flying at 2,200 mph (3,540 kph). 

And all this was done before digital functionality became commonplace.

Titanium and the Soviet Union

Photo of titanium
Titanium in Alloy Form. Photo: iStock

Despite the fact that titanium is the ninth most common element in the earth’s crust, it’s resources are lacking in the United States. And ironically, of all the places where this mineral is abundant is in the Russian territories, so the United States created dummy companies to hide who was actually the purchasing of this needed mineral.

The result was that the US succeeded in importing titanium from right under the nose of the the Soviets, and used it build a an aircraft that would eventually fly over their land and spy on them. How ironic!

Specifications of the SR-71 Blackbird

Inside SR-71
Cockpit of the SR-71. The display is all analog. Photo: iStock

This aircraft was truly an extraordinary feat of engineering, and it had many specifications that would go on to set records and even become standards for future planes.

It had a crew of one and could fly at Mach 3.2 (2,455 MPH) at a height of 85,000 feet. That is almost halfway into the Earth’s stratosphere, and with a fuel capacity of 36,000 pounds, and it could fly for over 2,500 miles without having to refuel. 

Because it was designed to fly at very high altitudes, the SR-71 was pressurized, allowing the pilot to fly without a spacesuit. While flying at those altitudes, the plane would also be able to fly through weather that other aircraft could not fly in. 

How Fast is the SR-71?

Computer generated 3D illustration with the American Reconnaissance Aircraft SR-71
Computer generated illustration of the SR-71 Reconnaissance Aircraft SR-71. Photo: iStock

As mentioned this aircraft could fly at Mach 3.2. That’s faster than a bullet! Because the plane was streamlined, it was able to fly at those speeds without creating dangerously high pressures on the airframe. And this meant that the aircraft was able to maintain its altitude without using a lot of fuel to keep itself aloft.

This was a massive advantage for the SR-71, as it would let the aircraft fly for hours before needing to refuel. The speed record was set by retired Air Force colonel Bob Gilliland, who flew it from New York to London in 64 minutes, smashing the previous record. This equates to an average speed of 2,189 mph, which is still faster than any aircraft in service today.

Other Innovations by the Blackbird

As if breaking speed and altitude records weren’t impressive enough, the SR-71 also pioneered many other technologies that are still in use today. Here are some examples.

    • The SR-71 used a special fuel to cool itself, which is now used in many modern engines.
    • It had a special paint that didn’t reflect visible light or infrared light, making it incredibly stealthy.
    • The plane’s cockpit was also extremely advanced, with a heads-up display that projected critical information directly onto the windshield.
    • The navigation system was revolutionary, using Doppler beacons to accurately calculate the plane’s position.
    • The plane’s way of communicating with ground control stations was unlike anything used before. It had a special method of transmitting information as bursts of radio waves that could be received by a single ground station at a time. This was necessary because the aircraft had no way of knowing which ground station it was closest to.
    • The plane had a special method of using the airflow over the aircraft to cool its engines, which was necessary to prevent them from overheating at the plane’s high speeds.

Conclusion

The SR-71 Blackbird was one of the most advanced aircraft ever created. It pushed the boundaries of aeronautical engineering, and even in the modern digital age, it is still a very impressive machine.

This supersonic aeronautic advancement was extremely efficient and could travel long distances at supersonic speeds while carrying heavy payloads.  It was also extremely stealthy, making it a difficult target to see and track.

Despite having been decommissioned in the 1990s, the SR-71 still holds much impressive speed and altitude records. It truly is one of the most impressive aircraft ever created and deserves its place as a legend in aviation history.

 

Titanium – What is It and What is It Used For?

Photo of titanium
titanium metal alloy, used in industry, super resistant metal. Photo: iStock

Overview

In the last few years, there has been a lot of buzz about the metal known as titanium. The reason is that it has quite a few properties which make it useful in everyday life.

It is strong, lightweight, and corrosion-resistant among other things. It is most popular for being used to create aircraft parts and car engine components; however, there is so much more to this metal than meets the eye. 

People have used titanium for thousands of years. Only recently we have begun to understand exactly how useful this mineral can be. It was found to be extremely useful for military stealth functions, starting with the famous SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft, due to the metal’s strength and high-temperature resilience (as we will discuss below) and the fact that it is light weight (e.g. in this case, functioning as a material that is very strong but light), it was perfect for this spy plane. 

Let’s take a look at some interesting facts about titanium.

Properties Stronger than Steel

You might have heard that titanium is as strong as steel. While this is not entirely true, it is close enough to be significant. To begin with, strength is not a single chemical property of a material. But for simplicity, let’s treat it as one. 

The tensile strength (measurement of a material’s elastic stress when a load is placed on it – how much it can withstand before starting to stretch or pull out before breaking apart) of steel is around 100 gigapascals (GPa) – the unit of measurement of tensile strength. (One pascal is equal to 1 newton of force per square meter).

The tensile strength of titanium is about 60 GPa. Therefore, steel is stronger than titanium. However, the thing to note here is that titanium’s strength is applied only at a very specific point. Let’s say that you have a piece of metal that has a high tensile strength across its entire surface. This does not make it stronger than a piece of metal with a lower tensile strength applied at a specific point.

Titanium Symbol
Titanium (Ti) has 22 electrons and 22 protons. Photo: iStock

Chemical Properties of Titanium

Titanium has a lot of unique properties that make it special. It has a very high melting point (more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit). Because titanium resists oxidation at high temperatures, it is often used in high-temperature applications.

Oxidation is the loss of electrons, resulting in the titanium atoms becoming vulnerable to combining with other atoms; subsequently changing its properties and compromising the material.

A perfect example of using titanium for its resistance to oxidization   at high temperatures is that it makes an excellent material for the SR-71 since this plane had the ability to fly at Mach 2.5, which is close to 2,000 miles per hour. This metal is also corrosion-resistant. This means that titanium is very useful when exposed to water or air. 

Titanium has an atomic number of 22 and an atomic weight of 47.867, which means it has 22 protons and approximately 48 protons and neutrons, respectively.

Everyday Uses of Titanium

Titanium is being used in many different industries, and there are several everyday uses of titanium that you may not be aware of. This is because titanium is lightweight, strong, and corrosion-resistant, making it the perfect material for sports equipment.

    • Sports equipment – If you are a sports fan, you may have seen athletes wearing titanium-containing sports accessories. 
    • Medical equipment – If you ever get an MRI scan, you may be inside a machine that is made of titanium. This is because titanium is very safe to use around living tissue and can be sterilized easily. 
    • Marine parts – If you own a boat, you may be surprised to learn that the propellers and rudders are often made of titanium. This is because it is strong, lightweight, corrosion-resistant, and does not affect water flow. 
    • Water and air purification – You may have seen pictures of large towers in cities. These towers are used for water purification and are often made of titanium. 
    • Construction – Buildings, bridges, and other infrastructure are often constructed using titanium. This is because it is highly corrosion-resistant and very strong. 
    • Food packaging – If you have ever eaten food that was in a pouch, there is a good chance that the pouch was made of titanium.

How is Titanium Produced?

Titanium is made through a process known as the Kroll process. – First, titanium ore is mined and then sent to a smelter where it is heated to extremely high temperatures.

The resulting molten metal is then sent through a chemical reduction process which removes oxygen and other impurities. The molten metal is then cast into ingots and then rolled into long bars. These bars are then drawn through a press that elongates them and makes them thinner. Finally, the bars are shaped into their final forms and then sent to be coated or processed further.

Problems with Manufacturing and Existing Processes

As you have read, titanium is a very versatile material that can be used in a wide variety of industries. However, there are some issues with the current methods of manufacturing this mineral that needs to be addressed. 

    • High costs – Currently, the process of producing titanium is very energy-intensive and expensive. The cost of the metal itself is also quite high, making it costly to produce certain products. 
    • Contamination – The process of manufacturing titanium is quite complex, and there is a risk of contamination in certain areas of the process.  
    • High purity requirements – Another issue with titanium is that it has very high purity requirements. This means that the resulting metal can be very impure even after the purification process. 
    • Difficult to produce large quantities of titanium in the quantities needed for the industries that use it.

Concluding Words

Titanium is a very versatile metal that can be used in a wide variety of industries. However, due to its high costs and difficult manufacturing process, it is often difficult to produce large quantities of titanium. With that said, titanium is used for very specific functions. This article has explored the many uses of titanium and the process behind its manufacture.

 

5 Buildings that Use Cantilever Architecture

Citicorp Tower looking up
Citicorp Tower, NYC. Photo: Wikimedia CC
Citicorp Tower cantilevers
Citicorp Tower cantilevers. Photo: Wikimedia CC

In the 19th century, with the advent of structural steel, engineers began using cantilevers to construct taller buildings. This type of architecture is primarily used when there isn’t enough space on one side of a structure for its foundation. Engineers have to build the foundation out from one side and then use beams that extended from it to support the weight. 

This construction style is eye-catching and certainly more daring than other methods of building. It also requires serious engineering skills, as well as a detailed understanding of how much weight the beams can bear without giving way. Indeed, the correct structural engineering is imperative as just a small miscalculation in the production of steel and concrete can result in catastrophe.

‍If you live in a big city, you might have noticed that more buildings are being built with these overhangs. This is especially true for cities where space is at a premium, such as New York City.  In this article, we are going to take office building construction to a whole new level – the use of cantilevers!

The Rotterdam Tower

De_Rotterdam Tower showing cantilevered construction
Photo: WikiPedia-CC

This intriguing building is located in the Netherlands and is part of the Erasmus Bridge Complex. It is a mixed-use building that houses offices, a hotel, and apartments. The building has a cantilever design, which is why the residents can enjoy a gorgeous view of the river

The architects designed the building so that it extends out over the river and almost touches the bridge. They also designed it so that it is taller on one side. The weight of this building is distributed between its central core and its cantilever, which is why it can be so tall without the ground beneath it being affected.

Statoil Regional and International Offices

Statoil is an energy producer in Norway and the 57th largest company in the world. Norwegian architects A-Lab designed a 117,000-square-meter commercial building complex that fits into the picturesque shoreline of Fornebu in perfect harmony.

Additionally, this architectural expression injects new energy into the nearby park and commercial area and was a key challenge in their design. Of course, it is the overhangs that make the building stand out. They stretch up to 100 feet in many directions.

Marina Bay Sands Hotel

The Marina Bay Sands Hotel is considered one of the most impressive hotels in the world. It is a massive construction project that began in 2003 and was completed in 2011. The project was a collaboration between the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and the Singapore government, and was built on the site of a former shipyard. The hotel has three 55-story towers. but in addition these buildings, it has a sky park that is cantilevered over all three towers.

Designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie,  the hotel has 2,500 rooms and a lobby that crosses the entire three buildings just like the sky park above.

Marina Bay Sands Hotel Sinagpore

Marina Bay Sands Hotel by architect Moshe Safdie. Photo by Julien de Salaberry on Unsplash

The Shifting Sands of Singapore 

One of the most unusual aspects of the construction of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel was that the builders had to constantly monitor the ground and adjust the foundations as the ground shifted. This is common in areas where there is a lot of water, such as Hong Kong and the Netherlands. However, it is unusual for the ground to shift to the same extent in an area that does not experience major flooding.

One theory is that the government has been dredging sand from the bay for years in order to extend the shoreline, which may have caused the ground to subside. Another theory is that the weather changed and the region experienced a period of unusually heavy rain. Whatever the cause, the shifting sands proved to be a major challenge to construction of the hotel.

Building the Hotel

One of the most interesting aspects of the construction of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel was that builders used an unusual design that allowed them to build upwards while keeping the foundations stable

This was necessary because Singapore is built on a floodplain, and it is impossible to build foundations below ground level. The builders designed the foundation so that the bottom of the hotel would be built on a metal mesh, which would be anchored to the ground. The metal mesh would keep the foundation stable, while allowing sand and water to flow freely through it. The metal foundation is built in modular sections, which can be raised and lowered as necessary. The builders also used a system of shuttles to transport construction materials to the upper floors of the hotel, as well as the rooftop.

Lessons Learned from MBS’s Construction

As we have seen, the construction of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel was a challenge. It is rare for the ground to shift so dramatically in an area where there is no flooding, and it is even more unusual for builders to build on top of a metal foundation. Although this construction project was unique, it still provides some important lessons for other builders.

The first is that challenges are an inevitable part of construction, and there are always a number of factors that have to be taken into account. The second is that challenges should not be seen as a reason to abandon the project. When building on the water, the builders of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel had to be flexible, and ready to make adjustments at any time. If they had been too rigid, they may not have been able to proceed with the project at all.

One Vanderbilt – New York City

Vanderbilt Office Building under construction
Vanderbilt Office Building under construction. Photo: SS

With space so much at a premium in this city, the only way to build is to go up, and even then, it might not be enough to encompass the amount of office space that the developers envisioned for the Vanderbilt tower.

Located across from Grand Central Terminal, it is the fourth tallest building in NYC, rising 1,401 feet above the ground. On the south and west sides, it is cantilevered over Vanderbilt Ave. and 42nd Street respectively, and this overhang starts at only approximately 50 feet up and then supports the rest of the superstructure. There is an observatory at the top, which is the 5th observatory in Manhattan. 

Other skyscrapers with noticeable cantilevered construction in New York include Central Park Tower and the Citicorp Headquarters, displayed above. 

Frank Gehry’s Chiat/Day Building

Binoculars Building, Los Angeles
Binoculars Building, Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Wikimedia CC

This building is a former office building in Los Angeles, California that was converted into a mixed-use building. It is now home to a variety of businesses, as well as the famous advertising agency Chiat/Day.

Designed by notable architect Frank Gehry, this building with a cantilever on one side so that it could house all of the businesses. They designed the cantilever so that it wouldn’t cause damage to the building’s foundations.

The building’s cantilever also allowed designers to create an interesting façade. They were able to extend the second floor out so that it creates a terrace, which is accessible from the sidewalk.

Summing Up

The cantilever is an interesting architectural feature that many people likely do not think about as they walk under these overhangs, but it is a complex engineering solution that isn’t suitable for every project; however, in these examples, it works brilliantly.

While they may be pretty to look at, they also serve a critical  function, which makes them a necessity. While the specific structural design of each cantilever will vary depending on the building type, design, and geographic location, the overall concept is the same.

 

 

James Webb Telescope – What is it?

Carina Nebula
NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula Star-forming region from James Webb. Photo: NASA Public Domain

A Giant Feat for Mankind

By far, the most extraordinary images from outer space that have ever been received have come from the James Webb telescope. As the successor to the famous Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb is the most powerful space observatory ever built, with far more potential than anything that has come before it.

Launched on Christmas Day, 2021 on the Ariane 5 rocket, this giant observatory, the size of a tennis court, is currently in L2 Orbit, located 1.5 million miles from Earth, sending extraordinary images of objects from as back into time as when the big bang started -13.7 years ago. 

To understand why this matters so much to humanity, we first have to understand what the JWST is not. It is not a souped-up version of the Hubble; nor is it an alternative to Hubble — something different but still essentially the same.

Instead, the JWST represents a completely new paradigm in design and function for a space-based optical telescope. In other words: It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

How Does the JWST Differ from Hubble?

James Webb Telescope
JWST in space near Earth. James Webb telescope far galaxies and planets explore. Photo: iStock

The two telescopes, while both space-based observatories are very different in two significant categories.

    • Mirror size
    • Light spectrum

Size Does Matter!

There is a major difference between the JWST mirrors and the Hubble’s mirrors in size. As discussed further in the article, the bigger the mirror, the further back into space we can see.

James Webb Telescope mirrors compared to Hubble's mirrors
James Webb Telescope mirrors compared to Hubble’s mirrors. Photo: Nasa.gov

As a result, this amazing observatory is also about 10 times more powerful than Hubble, with a much wider field of view — and, therefore, able to observe more objects.

Electromatic (Light) Spectrum

The JWST is designed to observe light in infrared wavelengths. Being able to see objects not usually visible by humans, whereas Hubble primarily observes visible and ultraviolet light. 

This is significant because only a very small percentage of the universe’s atoms emit visible light, while almost all atoms emit infrared light. As such, the JWST — in conjunction with other telescopes that are observed in other wavelengths allows us to view a much bigger chunk of the universe than Hubble ever could.

In addition to infrared, the JWST also has a small segment that observes a type of ultraviolet light that is inaccessible to Hubble.

Why is the JWST Important?

The JWST is a completely different kind of telescope that exploits a different approach to astronomy and will, therefore, produce many different results.

With its ability to detect light from the first stars that ever formed in the universe and the first galaxies that ever formed after the Big Bang, it will, for the first time, give us a comprehensive picture of the evolution of the cosmos. 

The JWST will also allow us to look for the earliest signs of life beyond our planet and, as such, represents a major step on humanity’s path toward enlightenment, as well as a greater understanding of who, what, and where we are.

The Telescope Assembly

The observatory is primarily composed of three components:

    •  Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM)
    • The Spacecraft Element
    • The Optical Telescope Element (OTE)

Integrated Science Instrument Module

This is where the infrared components are. It contains the infrared camera and the spectrograph (device which separates incoming light by its wavelength (frequency).

 

James Webb Infrared Component
James Webb Infrared System. Photo: NASA

The Fine Guidance Sensor/ Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph is used to pinpoint the locations that the JWSP will look at.

The Optical Telescope Element (OTE)

This is where the mirrors are contained. The mirrors are the most significant part of the telescope. Simply put, the larger the mirror, the further back in space we can see and with greater detail,  More specifically, the size of the mirror is directly proportional to the sensitivity (detail) that the telescope can display. The larger it is, the more detail is will show.

This amazing high-tech instrument consists of hexagonal-shaped mirror segments that measure over 4.2 feet across and weighs approximately 88 pounds. It has 18 primary segments that work in symmetry together to produce one large 21.3-foot mirror.

The mirrors are made of ultra-lightweight beryllium, which was chosen due to their thermal and mechanical properties at cryogenic (low) temperatures, as well as beryllium’s weight which made it a lot easier to lift it into space.

James Webb mirror assembly
James Webb mirror assembly. Each segment has a thin gold coating chosen for its ability to reflect infrared light. The largest feature is the five-layer 80 feet long and 30 feet wide sun shield that dissipates heat from the sun more than a million times. Photo: NASA

“The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier astronomical observatory of the next decade,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This first-mirror installation milestone symbolizes all the new and specialized technology that was developed to enable the observatory to study the first stars and galaxies, examine the formation of stellar systems and planetary formation, provide answers to the evolution of our own solar system, and make the next big steps in the search for life beyond Earth on exoplanets.”

Amazingly, the mirrors will fold in order to fit into the spacecraft and then unfold when ejected into outer space.

“After a tremendous amount of work by an incredibly dedicated team across the country, it is very exciting to start the primary mirror segment installation process,” said Lee Feinberg, James Webb Space Telescope optical telescope element manager at Goddard. “This starts the final assembly phase of the telescope.”

Bill Ochs, James Webb Space Telescope project manager said “There have many significant achievements for Webb over the past year, but the installation of the first flight mirror is special. This installation not only represents another step towards the magnificent discoveries to come from Webb but also the culmination of many years of effort by an outstanding dedicated team of engineers and scientists.”

The Spacecraft Element

Something must power this system and the spacecraft element is what does it. Is supplies the rocket thrusters, propulsion system, communications and all the electrical power needed to make this run as a well oiled machine.

Where are We Now?

SMACS 0723A galaxy cluster. Furthers image recorded from James Webb telescope
Deepest Infrared Image of the Universe Ever Taken. Photo: NASA Public Domain 

We will leave you with this. Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, which contains thousands of galaxies is 4.6 billion light years away.

That means that we are looking at it the way it looked 4.6 billion years ago. Scientists have a lot of work ahead of them and who knows what they’ll find?

Space Shuttle Columbia History

Rocket Garden Kennedy Space Center
Cape Canaveral, Florida – March 2, 2010: The Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center. Eight milestone launch vehicles from KSC’s history are displayed. Photo: iStock

With the advent of NASA’s new planned trips to the moon and Mars and Elon Musk jumping in with his successful Space-X program, we’d thought it would be a good time to look back at how we got to this point and what better way to begin but with the Space Shuttle program. (Yes, we can go back further to the Saturn V and the manned moon trips but we will in a separate article because such a major achievement deserves its own space (put intended 😃)

Space Shuttle Overview

Space Shuttle Columbia from its 16th flight landing at Kennedy Space Center
Space Shuttle Columbia from its 16th flight landing at Kennedy Space Center Photo: Wikimedia Public Domain

The space shuttle Columbia was the first of the shuttle crafts to be launched and ultimately became a feat of engineering excellence. It was the most complex machine ever built to bring humans to and from space, and which has successfully expanded the era of space exploration. It lead to two decades of an unsurpassed legacy of achievement.

The difference between the shuttle program and previous rockets that went into space was that these aircraft were designed to be used over and over again. Columbia completed 28 missions over a 22-year span.

In the Beginning

The Columbia Space Shuttle was named after a sailing vessel that operated out of Boston in 1792 and explored the mouth of the Columbia River. One 975 in Palmdale, California, was delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in 1979.

There were many problems with this orbiter initially and this ultimately resulted in a delay in its first launch, but finally, on April 12, 1981, the shuttle took off and completed its Orbital Flight Test Program missions, which was the 20th anniversary of the first spaceflight and first manned human spaceflight in history known as Vostok 1.

Columbia orbited the Earth 36 times, commanded by John Young, a Gemini and Apollo program veteran, before landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. 

The Mission

Columbia was used for research with Spacelab and it was the only flight of Spacehab‘s Research Double Module. It was also used to deploy the Chandra observatory, a space telescope.

Columbia’s last successful mission was to service the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 2002 and was its 27th flight. Its next mission, STS-107, saw a loss of the orbiter when it disintegrated during reentry into the atmosphere and killed all seven of its crew.

February 1, 2003

NASA Columbia Crew
The STS-107 crew includes, from the left, Mission Specialist David Brown, Commander Rick Husband, Mission Specialists Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, and Michael Anderson, Pilot William McCool, and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. (NASA photo. via Wikipedia)

After a successful mission in space, the seven members of the Columbia began their return for reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, but something was about to go terribly wrong.

On this date, February 1, 2003, a small section of insulating foam broke off the shuttle. At first thought, one would think that this would not be a major problem, but when it comes to space flight and all the engineering complexities that come with it, one small defect can lead to disaster, and sadly, that is exactly what happened.

After months of investigation, it was determined that the reason for the foam breaking away from the Shuttle was due to a failure of a pressure seal located on the right side of the rocket booster.

This was the second disaster where we lost astronauts during space shuttle flights. The first was during a Challenger mission on January 28, 1986. This author distinctly remembers watching the take-off of the Challenger and then hearing a large expulsion. Everyone knew at that moment in time, that something was wrong.

The Result

The benefits that humankind has gained from these shuttle flights were enormous. There were missions directly involved in launching and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, docking with the Russian space station Mir, as well as performing scientific experiments that have ultimately benefited all of us.

In 2011, President Bush retired the Shuttle orbiter fleet and the 30-year Space Shuttle program in favor of the new Constellation program, but there were many costs and delays with this program and subsequently, it was canceled by President Obama in favor of using private companies to service the International Space Station. From then on, U.S. crews accessed the ISS via the Russian Soyuz spacecraft until a U.S. crew vehicle was ready

Today, we are experiencing achievements never before considered a reality within our lifetime. From the amazing photos from the James Well telescope to our planned missions to the moon and Mars, we have to credit those who came before these missions who deserve all the credit, lest we forget the ones who ultimately gave it all for the benefit of humankind!