Over the years we tend to forget what the greatest human wonders have occurred in our lifetime. I am talking of the way man has progressed in science. Not all is good, I admit that, but most is inspiring and literally gigantic in the way it has shaped our understanding of the universe.
I have quite a few IMAX films that are based on space and, like one of the titles, keeps the dream alive. They are all truly great but one stands out from the rest as being one of the absolute tests of man and machine. That film is Hail Columbia!
It is the condensed story of that first flight. It was named STS 1 Columbia and began a journey that was to last for over 30 years. In the film it gives us the troubles that faced the engineers. These are only brief as the main aim of the movie is to give an all American salute to the success that the project had. The main issue that most of the press attention at the time was asking involved the heat shield tiles. It was whether they were going to be up to the extremes of temperature that the orbiter would go through. The external protection was to haunt Columbia, both on this first flight, then later in 2003.
Robert Crippen and John Young were the brave crew who were to pilot STS 1. Now this is where I have to admit to you that John Young is someone I have always admired to the extent that I try to think of his robust and intelligent optimistic view of life whenever I feel down and uninspired. The answer he gives in front of the press when asked that it is not clear if it is possible to abort with the ejector seat while the solid boosters are burning…there is a pause and then John says ‘you just pull the little handle’ delivered in his typical dry manner.
'You just pull the little handle'
John Young and Robert Crippen
The Apollo mission was a dangerous and near impossible task to take man to the moon in a short amount of time. John F Kennedy declared ‘we do it not because it is easy but because it is hard’. John Young was there; he became an astronaut in 1962 after being a test pilot and holding service in the Navy for 25 years. He set time to climb world records, a maneuver that would put any of the largest roller coasters to shame. He proved he is the very definition of ‘the right stuff’
In NASA he was the first person to fly into space six times before his lunar lift off. He was the part of the Gemini series that led to the eventual Apollo moon landings. In fact it was while on the moon that John learnt of the funding that congress had awarded to the shuttle. This interaction is included in the film. 10 years later STS 1 rolled out to the new Kennedy space pad.
John Young on the moon
STS 1 is rolled out for engine testing
What was great about the shuttle is that it was reusable. It did turn out to be a workhorse carrying hundreds of tons in its cargo bay that now show us the universe, that help us communicate, that advanced medical and material science. It would have been impossible to build the International Space Station without it. The cost in life and money eventually led to the end of the shuttle fleet but this IMAX film takes us back to that first foray into making what has been proved to be the most complex vehicle design in the world. The Russians tired to compete with their Buran shuttle in 1988. That flew one test flight with no crew and was the first auto flight landing and circling the earth a number of times. The plug was pulled on the project due to the massive expense.
I take from the Buran project the main fact it was not manned. That is what makes Hail Columbia! so remarkable. Robert and John were to fly in an untested space ship. Even now it makes me shudder to think that they spent 3 years preparing for a mission that could have any number of failures. Every eventuality was theorized again and again but it all came down to having two of the best crew to handle all those situations. It was aborted at the first attempt due to computer problems then a few days later it took off. In the film that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Nasa has said since that Roberts heartbeat was racing, Johns never altered. Robert took anti sickness medication, as he had never been in space before. Fancy that being your first flight into space. Aboard an untested glider strapped to a controlled explosion!
It was at the point of lift off that the damage occurred to those tiles. On take off the extreme power generated by the engines feed back in acoustic vibration oscillations but is supposed to be suppressed by water as thousands of gallons is released under the vehicle on take of. There was not enough on that first flight and when the crew was orbiting the Earth they saw damaged tiles on the rear engine pods when opening the payload doors. No one knew if the all-important underside ones could have suffered the same fate.
The damage is clear in this image. A number of missing tiles can be seen on the engine pods
When the shuttle glided back to Earth and the communication black out occurred it was a tense moment. Watching the film now makes the situation very poignant due to the eventually fate of the orbiter 20 years later. At Columbia’s demise it ended the funding and another 10 years worth of service made sure the fleet completed the work on the ISS and showed that all those lives were not in vain.
Back in 1982 we see Columbia appear and glide down in front of a huge all American crowd in the desert at Edwards Air force Base in California. This was to make sure there was enough room to land incase of emergency. It is well documented later that other problems arose that could have caused the shuttle significant issues but thankfully it landed safety. The moment was captured on IMAX and, although there are other IMAX landings that are clearer, the anticipation and large crowd make this a gem.
I have included a download of the film in on a separate server and it is available here. It is not readily available in the UK. You can also see it below.