Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Space Shuttle: The Greatest Flying Machine Ever Built?

On December 19th 1972, the Apollo 17 command module America carrying astronauts Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt and Ron Evans splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, bringing an end to the Apollo Programme. However, before the Apollo days ever ended, NASA was already busy planning what shape the manned US space programme was going to take next. They set their sights for Low-Earth Orbit. In fact the announcement came while Apollo 16 astronauts John Young and Charlie Duke were walking on the Moon, to which Young replied "The people need that shuttle". The space shuttle was on its way.

First flight of the Wright Flyer, 1903
Now just before I get into the comparisons to other great flying machines, I just want to set everything straight. In this piece I will refer to anything used by human beings to successfully fly from one place to another as a flying machine. Seeing that human beings were the ones who built the machine, I won't really be crediting company names and things like that, just that that it was built by men and women. Understand? Right, I think we're ready to move on.

Lets's start at the very beginning and look at Orville and Wilbur Wright's very first flying machine. Although it is not even close to comparing to the worst of modern day aircraft, it showed us that man could get off the ground and fly like a bird, thus in my opinion, ranking up among the most important aircraft in history, but certainly not the greatest flying machine ever built. The same goes for things like the F-61 helicopter flown all those years ago. Then if you want to talk about airships, let's just say they're a bit too slow for me!

Let's take a look at some more..

The Bell X-1
The Bell X-1

The Bell X-1 will go down in history as the first aircraft flown by man to travel faster than the speed of sound. On October 14 1947, Air Force General Chuck Yeager flew the X-1 to a speed of 800mph(Mach 1.07) to become the first human to fly faster than the speed of sound. Just like many of the most famous aircraft ever built, it proved a point, showing us that we could now fly faster than the sound barrier, and since then, we have sought to fly harder and faster on every flight.

The X-15

In NASA's earliest days, before the nation's first astronauts were even selected, a group of twelve pilots found themselves soaring to previously unimaginable heights while flying the famous X-15 rocket plane. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, an X-15 pilot himself, and a man fascinated with flight since he was a little boy, was always fond of the X-15.  In the words of Armstrong; "Rockets were powering aircraft to higher and higher speeds. The X-15 had enough energy to zoom to altitudes above the atmosphere". It seems like this magical aircraft can get the first man on the Moon pretty excited. But that's the beauty of it! This particular flying machine was not your average plane. It couldn't even take off on a runway for crying out loud! It had to be taken up attached to the wing of a B-52 bomber and then simply dropped. Don't worry it didn't just glide back to Earth- here's the exciting part! Not long after being dropped from the B-52, the X-15's rocket engine would ignite and send both pilot and aircraft up to altitudes over 100km. If you have never seen the launch and landing of an X-15, I suggest you watch this. You can come to your own conclusions after watching it. I just think it was a magnificent flying machine and what I've written doesn't even come close to summing up how awesome the X-15 really was.

The Saturn V

At a height of 363 feet tall, the Saturn V is the largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever built. Everyone's familiar with the sight of the Saturn lifting off Pad 39-A during the Apollo 11 mission- just by looking at it in photos you can tell that this thing has a whole lot a muscle! Without the Saturn V, we may still live in a world where man hasn't walked on the Moon. This flying machine was flown on all the Apollo missions and will go down in history for this very reason. It is probably one of the most standout images that appears in people's minds when you mention space exploration. This may not be a good reason to award it the title of the greatest flying machine ever built, but without this amazing launch vehicle, you can't help but feel history books would be a lot different than they are today.

The Apollo Lunar Excursion Model(LEM)

The LEM in lunar orbit
Okay so you might think I'm focusing in on the Apollo days a but too much here right? But how can I leave out the LEM? It was of course the very machine that brought twelve men down to the lunar surface, and acted as a lifeboat during the perilous voyage of Apollo 13, saving the lives of three astronauts in the process. This spidery looking thing just looks really cool to me. With its four golden legs, the lunar module must have been one of the most difficult and scariest things to fly even for the most experienced pilot. You flew it standing up so that must have taken some getting used to! However, let's remember that it is a lunar module, and would be pretty useless and disastrous if it were to be flown here on Earth. What makes it unique is that it could only be flown off our planet. For me, it certainly ranks well up there seeing that it most certainly has to go down as the greatest flying machine to travel to the surface of the Moon. Now how many other flying machines can do that?


Like most of the flying machines mentioned so far on this list, the Concorde is no longer in service. However, a lot of people(including myself) feel it should still be flying. Now I have never flown on the Concorde- I'm only 16 years old, but I can understand how beautiful and commercially important this supersonic aircraft really was. Concorde could fly from London to New York in three hours, travelling at twice the speed of sound. This means that a businessman from North London could finish a meeting in Manhattan at midday and be back at home in time for tea. But looking at the aircraft itself, I mean come on- it looks perfect! The wings accompanying the narrow fuselage give the Concorde such a slick finish, ultimately allowing it to fly at Mach 2. Concorde pretty much was your ideal commercial aircraft, What a dream it must have been to fly!

The Soyuz

"Flying the Soyuz is like driving a Ferrari in a circuit... it's an extremely capable vehicle because it's extremely fast, and it performs very well". These were the words of ESA Astronaut Paolo Nespoli when I asked him last November to compare flying the Soyuz and the Shuttle. The Soyuz spacecraft has been in operation since the late sixties and is still flying astronauts and cosmonauts to the International Space Station to this very day. It is one of, if not the most reliable spacecraft ever built and it is the workhorse for the Russian Space Programme. Many would say that the Soyuz would beat the Shuttle hands down in terms of mission effectiveness and reliability, but you have to remember that it can only hold three people, and it cannot be reused. However it is the only spacecraft on this list that still flies.

And finally...

The Space Shuttle

For NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, "The space shuttle is the greatest flying machine that NASA has ever built". Now this is a man who has worked with the space agency since Project Mercury, and has no doubt witnessed some great air and spacecraft in his time, and he thinks that the space shuttle is the greatest flying machine man has ever built? I have to agree with him on this one.

Space Shuttle Discovery Launches on STS-120 from KSC.
Whenever I see videos and photos of the Space Shuttle, whether it be on its eight and a half minute journey to low-Earth orbit, or gliding its way back to the Kennedy Space Center with waving contrails flowing off the Delta wingtips, its one hell of a flying machine. First launched in 1981 on STS-1, the shuttle has flown 135 missions using five different orbiters; Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. During its 30 year history, it has deployed satellites, repaired and serviced telescopes, and has allowed us to build the ISS- a true city in space and our castle in the sky. It has proved to us that the word impossible no longer exists,

Over the course of its 135 missions, two orbiters and their crews have been lost on the path of exploring space. However, we must go on. Now that that the shuttle fleet has been retired, I have to say I miss seeing it fly. In fact, watching Atlantis landing at KSC for the final time really is what got me so enthusiastic about spaceflight. Here I saw one of the greatest space programmes coming to an end, but I knew that a new one is right around the corner. Looking at those pictures of Atlantis on the runway made me sad I have to say(I can't imagine how the astronauts must feel), but not because people would no longer be launching from US soil. Astronauts will fly from the US in a couple of years, and I'm really excited about that. However the thing that really disappointed me was knowing that this beautiful spaceship and remarkable flying machine would never leave Earth again.

Never before has a craft been able to escape the surly bonds of our Earth, orbit the planet every ninety minutes or so, build and visit space stations, conduct science in a microgravity environment, and then make a pinpoint landing on a runway nearly three miles long. Is that cool or what? If you have not had the pleasure of watching a video of a space shuttle landing, I suggest you check this out!

The Space Shuttle in Orbit
This versatile flying machine will go down in history as the first re-usable spacecraft ever flown. I am sorry I could not provide you with the important facts and figures that are needed in order to answer this question a bit better than I did, but I think I gave it a good shot. Perhaps I am still in mourning of losing our finest ship, or should I wait a few years and try come up with a better answer? In the future we will fly faster, higher and further than the shuttle ever could, and I cannot wait for that day. But the Space Shuttle has allowed us to do all this- it has allowed us to dream!