April 12, 2006 8:50 PM PDT

NASA shuttle program turns 25

NASA marked the 25th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight on Wednesday, offering a rare look at where the vehicles were developed and a peek at their successor.

The shuttle program made its maiden flight on April 12, 1981, with the Shuttle Columbia completing 36 orbits before returning to Earth two days later. Since then, NASA has performed 114 shuttle flights, carrying large payloads into orbit, servicing satellites, performing experiments, and taxiing crew and supplies to and from the international space station.

Columbia underwent meticulous testing--much of it performed at the NASA Ames Research Center near Sunnyvale, Calif.--before that first flight verified its worthiness as a space vehicle.

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Video: Super power for super mission
NASA shows off Columbia, the powerful supercomputer helping get it to Mars.

On Wednesday, NASA opened its facilities for a peek into the development of the shuttles and their successor, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), whose missions will focus on the moon and beyond.

The odd-shaped buildings are connected by giant wind tunnels. There used to be 26 tunnels, but today only two remain. One of them forms a dark passageway, empty except for a torpedo-like object hanging from the roof with a shark grin painted on its nose.

This tunnel is where models of planned spacecraft undergo wind tests that analyze the aerodynamics of each craft and help determine its mission-worthiness.

Before the first shuttle flight, more than 20,000 hours of tunnel tests were performed and more were to follow. Nonetheless, two of the shuttle flights ended in tragedy. The Challenger exploded about a minute after takeoff in January 1986, and Columbia broke up as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere in February 2003. Both crews perished. The second incident lead to the decision to retire the remaining shuttle fleet--Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour--by 2010.

That decision does not include retirement of the space program, however. NASA has decided to aim higher. The shuttles will be replaced by a new spacecraft designed to reach the moon and eventually land on Mars.

Visiting NASA Ames

The CEV will be shaped like the old Apollo capsule but will be three times larger. Its inaugural flight is scheduled for 2014, and it was tested in the wind tunnel for the first time a month ago.

The goal is to take four astronauts to the moon by 2018, where they are would build outposts where people could stay for up to six months and learn how to live off the land in space. The astronauts will build lunar greenhouses for growing vegetables, test the lunar soil and try to extract oxygen from it.

In order for man to stand on the moon in 12 years, NASA is going to have to perform a lot of calculations and analyze a ton of data. NASA Ames has a supercomputer it thinks is up to the task.

Its 10,240 processors are housed in black refrigerator-like boxes with twinkling diodes, filling a room that could hold three basketball courts. "The computer will be essential in reducing the design time and number of experiments needed," said Dochan Kwak, applications branch chief of the supercomputing division.

The cooling system roars constantly, while the supercomputer makes computations on the CEV. Together the processors can perform 61.4 teraflops (trillion operations per second).

But calculating is not enough. Traveling to the moon means attaining substantially higher speeds and withstanding substantially higher temperatures than the shuttle flights endure. New durable surface materials for the vehicle are needed.

Material samples are tested in the arc jet, which resembles a giant blast furnace, that blows hot gas in supersonic speeds. It mimics the heat and pressure when leaving and re-entering the atmosphere.

"The materials are better and lighter weight, we've learned a lot since the Apollo. There are many new concepts and ideas for the 'Super Apollo' as we call it," said Ernie Fretter, arc jet facility manager.

A vehicle going to the moon will face temperatures up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit when re-entering the atmosphere. And a trip to Mars will be even hotter.

"We want to get our feet wet on the moon and then see what we can do on Mars," Fretter said. "Space is big; you have to take baby steps.

"Going to the moon is a good first step."

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