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Airbus Defence and Space and the Space Shuttles

A long shared history

July 2011, Flight STS-135: the final Space Shuttle mission.

Atlantis Flight STS 35 © NASA Kim ShiflettOver the course of three decades, the NASA orbiters have carried into space numerous pieces of experimental equipment, technology demonstrators, satellites, probes and telescopes – not to mention the Spacelab reusable laboratory and Europe’s Columbus module for the International Space Station (ISS) – that were developed and built under the leadership of Airbus Defence and Space.

On its final journey Atlantis is once again bringing along samples destined for the Materials Science Laboratory (MSL) on board the ISS, where they will be fused together in the Solidification and Quenching Furnace (SQF) built by Airbus Defence and Space.

And it is an Airbus Defence and Space patent that provides the necessary thrust for the launch: the patent is central to the Shuttles’ main engines, which were designed in the mid-1960s.

 

1966: A patent for propulsion

Around the middle of the 1960s, NASA began to turn its thoughts more and more to developing a reusable space shuttle. They hoped such a craft would lower the costs of space transport and drive the commercialisation of space travel. It was at this time that Airbus Defence and Space developed contacts with NASA and the Space Shuttle programme. The Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) was developed based on a patent developed jointly by MBB (now Airbus Defence and Space) in Ottobrunn, Munich and Rocketdyne/North American Aviation.

In 1966 a joint proposal was put to the US Air Force. The object of the joint programme was to demonstrate technical mastery of very high combustion pressures in combustion chambers made of copper with milled cooling channels. A combination of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen was chosen as propellant.

In designing and manufacturing the demonstration engine, MBB made use of one of its in-house patents. Only Rocketdyne was in possession of appropriate testing rigs at this time, so testing took place at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susanna test site in California. The German-US high-pressure programme was given the name BORD 1 (BOelkow/Rocketdyne Division). The results far exceeded all expectations and combustion chamber pressures of 283 bar were reached. This still stands as a world record for the hydrogen/oxygen propellant combination.

The threefold design of the Shuttle, divided into orbiter vehicle, external tank and solid rocket boosters, was officially confirmed by NASA on 15 March 1972. Construction work began five months later.

 

1981: Free SPAS travel

A satellite designed by Airbus Defence and Space was launched ‘for free’ into space aboard flight STS-7 (Challenger in June 1983) as mission SPAS-01Columbia’s first four missions in 1981 and 1982 served to test the orbiter in space. In 1983 it was joined by Challenger, meaning two shuttles were available for orbital missions. It wasn’t long before a satellite designed by Airbus Defence and Space was launched ‘for free’ into space aboard flight STS-7 (Challenger in June 1983) as mission SPAS-01. The name Shuttle Pallet Satellite reflected the fact that the satellite was designed especially to meet the requirements of the Space Shuttle and to allow payloads to be taken to Space.

SPAS-01A and SPAS-02 followed in 1984 and 1991. An improved version of the satellite was sent into orbit as part of the German science programme Astro-SPAS between 1993 and 1997, with the two ‘interchangeable’ instruments ORFEUS (Orbiting and Retrievable Far and Extreme Ultraviolet Spectrometer) and CRISTA (CRyogenic Infrared Spectrometers and Telescopes for the Atmosphere) each being carried on board twice (on flights STS-51, STS-66, STS-80 and STS-85).

 

From 1983 on: A laboratory for space

Following the success of SPAS-01 in June 1983, space engineers were all eyes for the launch of Columbia in November 1983. It was the first time that the orbiter’s payload bay had contained Spacelab, the space laboratory built by Airbus Defence and Space. There were to be 21 further Spacelab flights, with the final one in April 1998 once again aboard Columbia (STS-90).

Airbus Defence and Space was also involved in human spaceflight through its development and construction of the life-support system for Spacelab and numerous pieces of experimental equipment (centrifuges, furnaces, greenhouses, cooling facilities and manipulators) for research under weightless and microgravity conditions.

 

IPS gets to the ‘point’

Airbus Defence and Space developed the Instrument Pointing System (IPS) for the Shuttles’ payload bays especially for telescopes and radar devices. This system’s job was to align devices installed on pallets with a particular point (a star) and keep the alignment true over long periods of time (STS-35; STS-51-F).

Cargo carrier

Also supplied by Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage were the pallets, designed primarily for the Spacelab programme. In all 13 were built and 10 of these flew on over 30 missions with up to three pallets on board each time. These pallets were designed to provide the Shuttle with a reliable platform, suitable for carrying a variety of types and sizes of cargoes into and back from space. The pallets were also used for mounting experiments outside Spacelab.

 

1989: Travelling through the solar system, looking deep into space

The Shuttle fleet was also central to the transporting and launch of larger satellites and interplanetary probes with Airbus Defence and Space participation: ESA’s Ulysses solar probe (October 1990) The Shuttle fleet was also central to the transporting and launch of larger satellites and interplanetary probes with Airbus Defence and Space participation: the Jupiter probe (October 1989), which featured a propulsion and braking system; ESA’s Ulysses solar probe (October 1990); and the Hubble Space Telescope with the Faint Object Camera (FOC) in April 1990 all went into space aboard a Space Shuttle. There were several missions to repair and renovate Hubble. Flight STS-109 in March 2002 saw astronauts bringing the FOC back to Earth – after more than 10 years of service. The flight unit is now on display in the Dornier Museum near the Airbus Defence and Space site in Friedrichshafen (Germany).

 

EURECA, the first fully automated free-flying research platform

In the summer of 1992, Atlantis released EURECA, a European satellite platform developed by Airbus Defence and Space, into space. EURECA (the European Retrievable Carrier) was an unmanned free-flying research platform for experiments under weightless conditions. One year later it was retrieved by the crew of Endeavour on flight STS-57 and brought back to Earth.

 

Endeavour also had a key role in three Earth observation missions in 1994 and 2000From Shuttle radar to TerraSAR-X

Endeavour also had a key role in three Earth observation missions in 1994 and 2000. The Space Radar Lab filled the orbiter’s entire payload bay, and it featured the X band radar developed by Airbus Defence and Space. For the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), aboard flight STS-99 at the turn of the millennium, there were indeed two X band radar devices: one in the payload bay and one on an extendable boom. These missions laid the foundations for Airbus Defence and Space’s TerraSAR-X radar satellite family which is currently operating in orbit.

 

2008: Columbus and the ISS

On 11 February 2008 (STS-122) Atlantis docked Europe’s Columbus space laboratory, the successor to Spacelab, to the ISS, and for over three years it has been used for basic research in a number of disciplines. Because it too had to fit inside the Shuttle’s payload bay, it is very similar in dimensions to the large habitable module of its predecessor Spacelab: the cylindrical Columbus module is 6.87 meters long and has a diameter of 4.48 meters. 41 European companies produced its various subsystems, and these were then integrated by Airbus Defence and Space into a complete, fully operational laboratory. To date, there are eight Airbus Defence and Space multi user facilities on board the ISS.

On 11 February 2008 (STS-122) Atlantis docked Europe’s Columbus space laboratory, the successor to Spacelab, to the ISS, and for over three years it has been used for basic research in a number of disciplines

2008: ATV – the ISS supply ship

For the last three years, Europe has had its own fully automated cargo spacecraft. In March 2008 the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), developed and manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space, completed its brilliant maiden flight. Launched from the Ariane 5 rocket, ATV can carry up to 7.5 metric tons of payload into low-Earth orbit. The ATVs supply astronauts with water, oxygen, food, clothes and personal items and the ISS with propellant. What makes ATV special is the fully automated way it approaches and docks with the ISS. As soon as the Space Shuttle era is over, ATV will become even more important for supplying the ISS, as it is the biggest spacecraft supplying the ISS so far.

ATV does not only bring equipment to the ISS, it also stays connected to the space station for up to six months, using its thrusters to adjust the ISS’ orbit. Friction from the residual atmosphere means the ISS has to be periodically boosted higher. Occasionally it is also necessary to perform evasive manoeuvres so as not to collide with space debris.

From SPAS-01 to the final flight of Atlantis Airbus Defence and Space’s 30-year contribution to the many transporting missions of NASA’s space fleet has been substantial. And the future looks bright too, with the even more fascinating challenge of closing the gap in space transport. Airbus Defence and Space already has ideas up its sleeve for how to develop ATV further, in support of ESA, within the framework of the ESA / NASA coordinated activities.

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