FAQ: The Maiden Voyage of the Space Shuttle

When Cmdr. John Young helmed the first space shuttle mission on April 12, 1981, it ended a six-year absence from space for American astronauts. Today is the 30th anniversary of that maiden mission that carried Young and his crewmate, Navy Capt. Robert Crippen, into orbit aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Young, a NASA veteran on his fifth orbital mission, and Crippen, who had helped design Columbia's revolutionary digital control system, ushered in a new era of space travel that day.

What was so special about the space shuttles?The space shuttles were the world's first reusable manned spacecraft. They established a lasting link between Earth and space, a space transportation system that could launch like a rocket, orbit like a spacecraft, return and land like a glider then do it all over again.

The space shuttle system consisted of three components:- The winged orbiter, which carried crew and payload, such as reconnaissance satellites and the Hubble Space Telescope - Twin solid rocket boosters for launching the ship into orbit- An external fuel tank for powering its three main engines (It was the only non-reusable part, falling off during orbit.)

What was the main purpose of a space shuttle?The vessel was intended and fulfilled its role as a glorified orbital moving truck that would help astronauts tote the gear necessary to service space stations and repair satellites. It was designed to carry large payloads and allow a crew to work onboard for two weeks at a time.

Did NASA send it on a test flight first?Nope. Young and Crippen were their own guinea pigs on the Columbia's 55-hour maiden voyage. Though all previous major space missions had been completed unmanned before astronauts were deployed, the space shuttle , by design, needed a crew onboard in order to return the vessel to Earth. (Software and hardware improvements over the decades have enabled unmanned capabilities, but an actual human pilot is still preferred.)

What were the living quarters like?Astronauts aboard the shuttles slept and ate in what's called the mid-deck. There was no fridge and only cold or lukewarm running water, but that was enough for reconstituting dehydrated meals in the galley or washing up with rinse-free shampoo.

The astronauts tethered sleeping bags to the wall to keep from floating around while slumbering in micro-gravity conditions . The ship's interior could be set to a comfortable temperature, so the sleeping bag was more for containment than warmth. (Zipping up with arms out causes the limbs to hover just above the body, putting crew members in a zombie-like pose.)

How did they go to the bathroom?Also in the mid-deck was the waste containment room. That is, the space potty . Instead of a toilet there were two systems for evacuation. These used suction in place of gravity. For urinating, crew members used a cup of sorts attached to a hose, which they held against or near their bodies and peed into, the urine itself being vacuumed away. System number 2 used a fan to whisk an astronaut's number 2 into a holding chamber.

How many people have flown in the space shuttle?Over three decades of operation, the space shuttles have hosted 353 astronauts.

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Life's Little Mysteries Contributor