NASA's Space Shuttle: Cheers to 25 Years from a Veteran Space Reporter
NASA's Columbia orbiter launches skyward on April 12, 1981 on NASA's first-ever shuttle flight, STS-1. Commanding the 54-hour mission was astronaut veteran John Young with then-rookie flyer Robert Crippen as pilot.
Credit: NASA.

CAPE CANAVERAL - Columbia blasted off 25 years ago today on NASA's first space shuttle mission. Seems like a good time to roll out my own personal list of shuttle program superlatives. And the winners are:

Best shuttle mission: STS-49 in May 1992. Three spacewalking astronauts grabbed an 8,960-pound satellite with gloved hands after two failed attempts to snare it with a $7 million capture bar. First flight of Challenger replacement orbiter Endeavour. First drag chute landing.

Loneliest astronaut: Pierre Thuot, on the end of Endeavour's robot arm during that same flight, watching the stranded satellite tumble away from the shuttle after tapping it too hard, for the second time in two days, with the capture bar.

Best shuttle bar: The Outpost near Johnson Space Center in Houston. A shrine to shuttle astronauts.

Most recognizable shuttle astronaut: John Glenn. Runner-up: Sally Ride.

Best shuttle crew: STS-27 in December 1988. Set to fly a classified military mission, Robert "Hoot" Gibson and his crew wore black masks to a preflight press conference. Asked by reporters about their top-secret payload, Gibson said: "We could tell you, but then we'd have to kill you."

Best answer in an astronaut candidate job interview: Bill Shepherd, first commander of the International Space Station. The U.S. Navy SEAL was asked what he does best: "Kill people with a knife."

Best crew nicknames: STS-69 in September 1995. Known as Dog Crew II, the group included the late Dave "Red Dog" Walker, Ken "Cujo" Cockrell, Jim "Dog Face" Voss, Jim "Pluto" Newman and Michael "Underdog" Gernhardt. The crew wore an alternate mission patch that featured a bulldog peering out of a doghouse shaped like a shuttle. They ate their preflight breakfast from dog bowls. Runner-up: Jean-Francois "Billy-Bob" Clervoy.

Best crew walkout: STS-44 Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test. For a launch-day dress rehearsal one day after Halloween in 1991, commander Fred Gregory and his crew wore hairless skullcaps as they departed quarters. It was a tribute to bald crewmate Story Musgrave.

Strangest shuttle astronaut: Story Musgrave. Runner-up: Rick Sturckow.

Smartest-and-bravest shuttle astronaut: Mir crash survivor Michael Foale.

Sickest astronaut: "Barfin' " Jake Garn. The U.S. senator from Utah suffered a notorious bout with space adaptation syndrome on his 1985 flight. Runner-up: J.O. Creighton, who fell ill before STS-36, delaying the February 1990 launch.

Luckiest astronaut: Dan Bursch, the only astronaut to survive two perilous shuttle launch pad aborts (on STS-51 in 1993 and STS-68 in 1994).

Tallest astronaut: 6-foot-4 Jim Wetherbee.

Shortest astronaut: 5-foot Nancy Currie.

Biggest shuttle flier: Russian cosmonaut Valery Ryumin.

Best "astro-couple": Robert "Hoot" Gibson and Rhea Seddon. Runners-up: Mark Lee and Jan Davis, who became the first married couple to fly together in space on STS-47 in 1992.

Coolest spacewalk: STS-41B in 1984. Bruce McCandless and Robert Stewart tested Buck Rogers jet backpacks known as manned maneuvering units.

Greatest spacewalking achievement: STS-61 in December 1993. An unprecedented five consecutive days of spacewalks were performed to repair the
myopic Hubble Space Telescope and outfit the observatory with new science instruments and equipment.

Scariest launch pad abort: STS-41D in 1984. A fuel valve triggered an engine shutdown four seconds before a planned launch, leading to a propellant leak and a fire with six astronauts aboard.

Scariest launch since the 1986 Challenger disaster: STS-93 in 1999. An electrical short crashed two engine computers five seconds after launch, leaving the crew one failure away from a risky emergency landing attempt. Runner-up: STS-114 in 2005. In a haunting reminder of the 2003 Columbia accident, a one-pound piece of external tank foam insulation broke free two minutes after launch, barely missing the shuttle's right wing as the ship climbed toward orbit.

Best bullet-dodger: Astronaut Mike Mullane. The first case of solid rocket booster O-ring "blow-by" (which later doomed Challenger) was recorded on his first flight, STS-41D in 1984. The most serious shuttle heat shield damage prior to the Columbia accident was tallied on his second, STS-27 in 1988.

The dreaded do-over award: STS-73 in 1995. The flight was scrubbed six times before blasting off. Three earlier missions (STS-61C, STS-35 and STS-36) each were delayed five times.

Most likely to be sent back to crew quarters: Astronaut Steve Hawley. He endured 11 launch scrubs prior to his five space flights.

Best all-astronaut rock 'n' roll band: Max Q.

Worst all-astronaut rock 'n' roll band: Max Q.

Best Elvis impersonator: Max Q lead singer Carl Walz.

Best sticks: Max Q drummer Jim Wetherbee.

Best stick: STS-49 Mission Commander Dan Brandenstein. On the 1992 flight, Brandenstein squeezed enough gas out of Endeavour's tanks to pull off a third rendezvous with a wayward spacecraft after his crew failed to snare it during two initial attempts. Mission planners had only budgeted enough propellant for two tries.

Best beer fund: STS-49. Brandenstein's crew was fined during training for each uttered curse word. As things got hairy during the mission, he reminded his crew over open communications loops: "The Eagle Is Listening."

Best crew patch: STS-71 in 1995. Famed aviation and space artist Robert McCall designed the patch, which depicted Atlantis and the Russian space station Mir converging before a rising sun. The sun symbolized the dawn of a new era in space flight.

Best post-landing picture: STS-43 in 1991. A supermarket tabloid published a doctored photo showing an alien exiting the shuttle with the astronaut crew.

Most mysterious shuttle manager: George Abbey, former director of Flight Crew Operations. His process for selecting astronaut crews: black magic.

Best shuttle-era Kennedy Space Center director: Forrest McCartney, who led KSC through the tumultuous post-Challenger recovery. McCartney was loved and respected on the fourth floor of KSC headquarters and the shop floor. Runner-up: Jay Honeycutt. A great manager and a really nice guy, he also understood the media's role in "telling the NASA story."

Best shuttle launch director: Bob "Part-the-Clouds" Sieck. A former Air Force meteorologist, Sieck's expertise in weather systems and forecasting came in handy. Unflappable, the iceman also was the very picture of grace under pressure.

Most accomplished KSC manager: John J. "Tip" Talone Jr. Talone was flow director for Discovery during the post-Challenger recovery and oversaw the manufacture and delivery of replacement orbiter Endeavour. Talone directed ground testing and processing for International Space Station components before taking on his most recent challenge: heading the effort to convert KSC back into a moonport.

Most likely to be an astronaut: Stephanie Stilson, who oversaw ground processing of Discovery for last year's first post-Columbia flight.

Best International Space Station construction crew: The STS-98 astronauts, who delivered the U.S. Destiny science lab to the ISS in February 2001.

Best 2-for-1 deal: STS-83 in 1997. One mission. Two launches. Two landings. Led by Jim Halsell, the crew cut short a science mission because of a failed fuel cell. NASA launched the crew again in less than three months so their mission (reconstituted as STS-94) could be completed.

Best space taxi driver: STS-71 Commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson. He ferried two Russian cosmonauts to the Mir station and returned to Earth with U.S. astronaut Norman Thagard and two other cosmonauts in 1995.

Best shuttle homeboy: "Booster" Bill Nelson. A native of Brevard County, Nelson's grandparents homesteaded on land where NASA eventually built the Shuttle Landing Facility. The politician-in-space flew aboard Columbia the mission before the Challenger accident.

Best shuttle homegirl: Kay Hire, the first KSC engineer to be selected as an astronaut. She flew on STS-90, a neuroscience mission, in April 1998.

Best liftoff line: Launch Commentator Lisa Malone on STS-95 with John Glenn onboard in 1998. "Booster ignition and lift-off of Discovery with a crew of six astronaut heroes and one American legend."

Best diving catch by a launch commentator: Bruce Buckingham on the initial STS-68 launch attempt in 1994. "Three, two, one, liiiiiiiiiif-Rendundant Set Launch Sequencer abort."

Most star-crossed mission: STS-35 in December 1990. Repeatedly delayed during a six-month period by diabolical fuel leaks. Shuttle toilet broke in orbit.

Weirdest science experiment: STS-58 in 1993, the headless rat mission. A guillotine-like "rodent dispatcher" was used to "fix" rats in orbit as part of a life sciences study.

Worst summer: 1990, also known as the "summer of discontent." Within a period of about 72 hours, NASA announced the Hubble Space Telescope was launched with a misshapen mirror and also grounded its shuttle fleet because of mysterious fuel leaks.

Weirdest launch delay: STS-70 in 1995. Set to launch on the historic 100th U.S. human space flight, the mission was delayed after Yellow Shafted Flicker Woodpeckers drilled dozens of holes in external tank foam insulation. The shuttle was returned to its assembly building for repairs. The mission ultimately became the 101st U.S. human space flight.

Best prelaunch astronaut prayer: "Please, God, don't let me screw up."

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