President Richard Nixon in early 1969 formed the Space Task Group, whose job was to chart the nation's future in space.
One of the first questions the group settled, according to Paul Holloway, then a young engineer at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, was whether to build a space station or a reusable space vehicle.
Ultimately, the group decided on a vehicle because NASA "didn't have any way to get to a space station," Holloway, a Poquoson native who later became Langley's director, said.
The choice led to the shuttle, a program both celebrated and criticized that, after more than 30 years of flight, is coming to an end. The 135th and final launch — four astronauts aboard the shuttle Atlantis — is scheduled for Friday.
This is the first in a series of stories that will examine the space shuttle, a program whose duration — and cost — went far beyond NASA's expectations and frequently involved Langley researchers.
Years before the first shuttle launch in 1981, NASA brass envisioned a small fleet of vehicles carrying astronauts into space every few weeks. The program would last 10 years before NASA moved on to something else.
Del Freeman was among the engineers testing shuttle designs in Langley's wind tunnels during the 1970s. Coming on the heels of Armstrong's historic flight, Freeman described an electric atmosphere that buzzed throughout NASA.
"We knew it was the next major step," said Freeman, who also served as Langley's director.
Nixon, the first of eight presidents whose terms coincided with the life of the space shuttle, formally announced the program in 1972. It helped mobilize thousands of contractors throughout the nation who built and tested myriad shuttle components.
At the time, Bill Harris worked for Fairchild Republic Corp. in Long Island, N.Y. His team made sure parts of the vehicle could withstand temperatures that switch from 160 degrees below zero in space to 2,300 degrees while re-entering Earth's atmosphere.
The work took on added importance because, unlike previous spaceships, shuttle did not have an escape system, said Harris, who is retired and living in Yorktown. He said the design quirk proved fatal during the Challenger and Columbia disasters, which killed 14 astronauts.
Shuttle's first launch was slated for 1976 but it was pushed back a year. More delays followed as researchers continued to spot flaws.
Among them was a handling problem uncovered during tests of a flight simulator built by Dick Powell, a Langley engineer who had recently graduated fromVirginia Tech.
Powell, who still works at Langley, found that the shuttle would become uncontrollable at Mach 6 — six times the speed of sound — a speed it would encounter during its descent back to Earth. His suspicions were confirmed by Hank Hartsfield, an astronaut who repeated the wind tunnel test. Hartsfield went on to fly the fourth shuttle mission in 1982.
That problem — and many others — were corrected by April 1981. But there was anxiety the day of the first launch — NASA had never attempted to send a spacecraft into orbit like a rocket and land it like an airplane.
Langley researchers were on edge. For many, more than a decade of work was hanging in the balance — not to mention the lives of four astronauts.
Freeman remembers gathering with co-workers at Langley to listen to the noon launch of Columbia on the radio. The rockets worked as planned and Columbia spent the next two days orbiting Earth.
The real test, landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California, awaited. The festive mood at Langley again turned tense as astronaut Robert Crippen guided the shuttle back to Earth.
"Everybody there was very anxious, especially on the re-entry," Freeman said.
Cheers and cigar smoke filled the room as Columbia touched down on the runway. The first shuttle mission was complete — and many more would follow.
You'll find a space shuttle timeline and additional coverage on the new Daily Press science and technology page at dailypress.com/science
The final launch of NASA's Space Shuttle program is scheduled for Friday. NASA Langley Research Center was involved from the start, 40 years ago.
Today: Langley researchers tested early versions of shuttle
Monday: How Sally Ride helped save the ozone layer
Tuesday: Langley after the 2003 Columbia disaster
Wednesday: Has shuttle been good for Langley?
Thursday: Lesa and Ralph Roe and the shuttle program
Friday: Shuttle's over. Now what?Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun