New book tracks NASA’s Space Shuttle program – perhaps its ‘most important’ era thus far

“Space Shuttle Stories” features the voices of the astronauts themselves – at least one for every one of the shuttle program’s 135 missions.

By Laura RiceJanuary 16, 2024 3:11 pm, , , ,

Atlantis. Discovery. Enterprise. Endeavor. Challenger. Columbia.

For three decades, NASA was in the Space Shuttle age with 135 missions. Most were filled with historic firsts. And, of course, there were also notable tragedies.

Astronaut and spacewalker Tom Jones has collected stories from each mission into a big photo-filled book titled “Space Shuttle Stories.”

Jones spoke with the Standard about his own experiences with the Space Shuttle program and why he believes its accomplishments may be sometimes overshadowed by its two deadly disasters.

Listen to an extended version of the interview above or read the transcript below. This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

The big, rectangular coffee table book "Space Shuttle Stories" sits on a white table. The cover of the book is black with big white lettering. An image of a space shuttle takes the place of the "a" in space in the title.

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about your own four Space Shuttle flights.

Tom Jones: I was very lucky to get to fly on four shuttle missions during the 1990s into the early 2000s. And so three of them, the first three, were science missions. And that’s so much of what the shuttle did during the 1990s. It was a science platform helping us get ready for the space station program.

And so two of them were Earth science missions, where we studied the changing face of our dynamic planet. And the third one was a launch of two science satellites that did some astronomy, and the other one did computer chip manufacturing in space. Then we retrieved those satellites and brought them back home for reuse.

And then finally, on my fourth trip, it was a construction hardhat flight where we helped build the space station by delivering the U.S. science lab called Destiny up there to the station.

Could you say a little bit more about what was so special about the Space Shuttle era for NASA?

It came after the Apollo moon landings. The first flight was in 1981, and then the shuttle served the nation for 30 years until 2011. And it was the most long-lived program in NASA’s history. And I would argue that it was the most important program, even considering Apollo, because in those 30 years we learned how to work and do complex operations in space that are going to be the foundation for what we do here in the 21st century.

So the shuttle was a very versatile, flexible platform. It did military and classified missions to help us during the Cold War. It did satellite deployment repair. It flew many science laboratories to get us ready for the space station, and it repaired and upgraded the Hubble telescope, for example.

355 people flew on the Space Shuttle. The story that I wanted to tell was, how did using the shuttle change the lives and the experiences of these crewmates of mine?

What did folks tell you about how their experience with the shuttle program changed their lives?

Well, there’s the physical experience, first of all. And so everybody is awestruck by the view of the home planet from 200 miles up, let’s say. And so there’s that experience of seeing your home as an oasis in space. And it’s always changing. It’s always beautiful. It’s always a lovely sight out the window. It’s a wonder that we ever got any work done up there because of the draw of the beauty of the planet outside.

And then there’s the physical experience of living and working in space. You know, you’re on a camping trip where you happen to be weightless at the same time, and you’re trying to deal with everything that you have to deal with in living and working in a laboratory up there.

So the space shuttle was essentially an orbiting laboratory type of environment, but you still had a bathroom, you had a kitchen, you had exercise gear and sleeping quarters. All of that rolled into these two minivan-sized spaces that made up the shuttle’s crew cabin. So you get that coming through the book, how people dealt with the space experience.

But then I think the overwhelming impression that was in common with our crewmates and colleagues was that we felt an immense satisfaction in being part of the team that pulled off all these amazing and different missions. So you were part of the Mission Control team in Houston. You were part of the launch control team in Florida, getting you into orbit, preparing your spaceship for flight. And then, while you were in space, you were the in space part of that team that actually, you know, did the actual rendezvous and grapple of satellites or built a space station or operated an observatory up there.

National Archives at College Park - Still Pictures, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tom Jones poses for a photo on the Atlantis aft flight deck holding a Hasselblad camera during a 2001 mission.

For all the similarities, in a sense, each of these missions seemed to sort of have a kind of individual personality. Is that fair to say?

Oh, that’s very true. Each had a unique theme, and sometimes you would fly very similar science payloads, but a different twist to it because you had a different team at work in space. So every crew had their own imprint on the work that they did up there, the way they planned it, the way they approached it, and that’s reflected in the make-up of the crews.

You know, the Space Shuttle gave a wide spectrum of Americans the chance to fly in space and even with many international astronauts as crew members, too. So we had, you know, the first African American to fly in space on the shuttle, the first American woman to fly on the space shuttle. And all of the astronauts who were hired from 1978 onward represented a much broader swath of American society than the early Apollo astronauts did.

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Can you talk a little about Skylab and how it led up to the Space Shuttle era?

Skylab used the leftovers from the Apollo program to actually put a little space station in orbit. And it was roomy enough. It was about the size of a two-bedroom house. Three astronauts lived in it for as long as 84 days.

And so it was up there for and being used by three different crews for about a year and a half in the early 1970s. And it gave us a taste of what the resources of near-Earth space and low Earth orbit would do for us. We had the vacuum that we could tap into, we had the clear skies above the atmosphere, and we had the resource of freefall or weightlessness to use as a laboratory factor in our investigations.

So to utilize those resources more fully and routinely and regularly, the Space Shuttle was conceived as a way to get you to low-Earth orbit, give you 2 to 3 weeks of working time up there, and you could carry a laboratory with you, or you could deploy a science satellite, or you could launch a commercial satellite.

So the 30 years of the shuttle program gave us the skills and the experience we needed to tackle everything we could do in near-Earth space.

A lot of Texans, in particular, remember the Columbia disaster. Can you talk about writing about that mission and the Challenger disaster?

The shuttle flew for 30 years, and it had two tragic accidents. In 1986, Challenger was lost during ascent to orbit. And then in 2003, Columbia was lost on the way back from its 16-day science mission.

And so I was trying in my book to get one astronaut voice from every one of the 135 missions, and now I’ve got two missions that I have to tell the story of, without any crewmates of mine or colleagues of mine to help me tell that story – they’re gone. They were lost in those two accidents, so I had to search for their voices.

And in the 1980s, NASA didn’t do a lot of recording of press conferences and long format interviews. So I had to go to press clippings, media interviews by, you know, TV stations talking to people at Kennedy Space Center. So I found enough of the voices of those seven crew members on Challenger in 1986 to let them each speak and talk about the importance of their mission and their work to the reader.

And then, in the case of Columbia, the seven astronauts aboard that ship were all of my friends and coworkers. We worked on the space station planning and training together. And so these were my personal friends lost on that mission.

Laurel Clark. NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I could have done the same thing and gone to snippets from each of them. But my friend, Laurel Clark, who was on Columbia, sent an email home just a couple of days before the crew returned. And that’s when their heat shield failed and they were lost. And her email was just so full of the awe of being in space for the first time.

She was a rookie flier, and the exuberance of working with her crewmates elbow to elbow on their science mission for 16 days, and how well that was going, and just the enthusiasm and teamwork and friendship that came through her email was so vivid and told the story so well that I let Laurel, with her emails, speak for the entire Columbia crew in the book.

In researching this book, what did you learn?

Yeah, I thought I knew a lot about the Space Shuttle, but talking to my friends who flew before and after me gave me a big lesson in what the space shuttle was capable of. And some of the close calls we had right after the Challenger accident.

Two flights later, we had a crew on STS 27 go up, and their heat shield was badly damaged by debris coming off the shuttle’s boosters. And so that crew looked at their TV camera and thought, “we are going to die.” They looked at a damaged heat shield and said, “there’s no way we’re going to make it back into the atmosphere.” And they did make it back safely, but they almost had a burn through of the shuttle’s skin during that hypersonic reentry. And that was a mission that I’d never heard the details on. So that was a startling precursor to what happened to Columbia 15 years later.

Do you think that the Columbia and Challenger disasters in a way overshadowed the accomplishments of the Space Shuttle program?

I would agree. Those two tragedies are seared into our memories. We all remember where we were when these two accidents occurred. And so you tend to lose the content of the other 133 missions.

But what comes across in the book, I think, is that everybody had a unique job to do, a set of mission objectives that they were so enthusiastic about, and they were so successful by and large, and getting these things done.

And it’s inconceivable to me that we could just jump from Apollo to going back to the moon or on to Mars without this big intermediate step of the shuttle teaching us how to work successfully on complex operations in space. Some miracles were pulled off in repairing and restoring the Hubble and building the space station. That really just still amaze me.

What drove you to want to write this book in the first place? This is a very human book for something that we often think of as very scientific.

My motivation was to get the human voice of the astronauts out there. The shuttle’s receding into history, and it’s been over 12 years since it retired. And so I wanted to capture these human experiences before the participants, the astronauts themselves, have left us.

And in the case of the fliers from the early 1980s, many of them have gone on to posterity. So I wanted to first start with those early missions and get a voice before I lost some crew members, and then proceed all the way through the 135 missions and get a single voice.

And my motivation was to add to the technical histories that NASA and other authors have produced about the shuttle’s career, and then preserve those lessons learned and the experiences of the astronauts so that future explorers can benefit from those lessons and fears and challenges overcome by the shuttle astronauts.

Did you grow up at a time when there was all this excitement about space exploration?

I’m a child of the space age, so I grew up at the heart of the Gemini and Apollo programs. And I was going to high school when we first landed humans on the moon. So I was motivated to become an astronaut or to try to get to be one someday by my heroes in the Apollo program. And so it was a lifelong dream of mine.

It only took me 29 years to get qualified as an astronaut. But I finally got there, and I was privileged to get to work with some of the Apollo astronauts who served as my instructors when I was a shuttle crewmember.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mis-transcribed the number of days of the Columbia mission STS-107. The mission lasted 16 days.

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