NASA's Space Shuttle: Cheers to 25 Years from a Veteran Space Reporter

The Ultimate Test Flight: NASA's Shuttle Fleet at 25
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. (Image credit: NASA.)

CAPE CANAVERAL - Columbia blastedoff 25 years ago today on NASA's first space shuttle mission. Seems like agood time to roll out my own personal list of shuttle program superlatives. Andthe winners are:

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

Loneliest astronaut: Pierre Thuot, on the end ofEndeavour's robot arm during that same flight, watching the stranded satellitetumble away from the shuttle after tapping it too hard, for the second time intwo days, with the capture bar.

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

Most recognizable shuttleastronaut: John Glenn. Runner-up: Sally Ride.

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

Best answer in anastronaut candidate job interview: BillShepherd, first commander of the International Space Station. The U.S. NavySEAL was asked what he does best: "Kill people with a knife."

Best crew nicknames: STS-69 in September 1995. Known asDog 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 alternatemission patch that featured a bulldog peering out of a doghouse shaped like ashuttle. They ate their preflight breakfast from dog bowls. Runner-up: Jean-Francois"Billy-Bob" Clervoy.

Best crew walkout: STS-44 Terminal CountdownDemonstration Test. For a launch-day dress rehearsal one day after Halloween in1991, commander Fred Gregory and his crew wore hairless skullcaps as theydeparted quarters. It was a tribute to bald crewmate Story Musgrave.

Strangest shuttleastronaut: StoryMusgrave. Runner-up: RickSturckow.

Smartest-and-bravestshuttle astronaut:Mir crash survivor MichaelFoale.

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

Luckiest astronaut: Dan Bursch, the only astronaut tosurvive two perilous shuttle launch pad aborts (on STS-51 in 1993 and STS-68 in1994).

Tallest astronaut: 6-foot-4 JimWetherbee.

Shortest astronaut: 5-foot NancyCurrie.

Biggest shuttle flier: Russian cosmonaut Valery Ryumin.

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

Coolest spacewalk: STS-41B in 1984. Bruce McCandlessand Robert Stewart tested Buck Rogers jet backpacks known as manned maneuveringunits.

Greatest spacewalkingachievement: STS-61in December 1993. An unprecedented five consecutive days of spacewalks wereperformed to repair the
myopic Hubble Space Telescope and outfit the observatory with new scienceinstruments and equipment.

Scariest launch padabort: STS-41D in1984. A fuel valve triggered an engine shutdown four seconds before a plannedlaunch, leading to a propellant leak and a fire with six astronauts aboard.

Scariest launch sincethe 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 ahaunting reminder of the 2003 Columbia accident, a one-pound piece of externaltank foam insulation brokefree two minutes after launch, barely missing the shuttle's right wing as theship climbed toward orbit.

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

The dreaded do-overaward: STS-73 in1995. The flight was scrubbed six times before blasting off. Three earliermissions (STS-61C, STS-35 and STS-36) each were delayed five times.

Most likely to be sentback to crew quarters: Astronaut Steve Hawley. He endured 11 launch scrubs prior to his fivespace flights.

Best all-astronaut rock'n' roll band: MaxQ.

Worst all-astronaut rock'n' roll band: MaxQ.

Best Elvis impersonator: Max Q lead singer Carl Walz.

Best sticks: Max Q drummer Jim Wetherbee.

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

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

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

Best post-landingpicture: STS-43 in1991. A supermarket tabloid published a doctored photo showing an alien exitingthe shuttle with the astronaut crew.

Most mysterious shuttlemanager: GeorgeAbbey, former director of Flight Crew Operations. His process for selectingastronaut crews: black magic.

Best shuttle-era KennedySpace Center director: Forrest McCartney, who led KSC through the tumultuous post-Challengerrecovery. McCartney was loved and respected on the fourth floor of KSCheadquarters and the shop floor. Runner-up: Jay Honeycutt. A greatmanager 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 systemsand forecasting came in handy. Unflappable, the iceman also was the verypicture of grace under pressure.

Most accomplished KSCmanager: John J."Tip" Talone Jr. Talone was flow director for Discovery during thepost-Challenger recovery and oversaw the manufacture and delivery ofreplacement orbiter Endeavour. Talone directed ground testing and processingfor International Space Station components before taking on his most recentchallenge: heading the effort to convert KSC back into a moonport.

Most likely to be anastronaut: StephanieStilson, who oversaw ground processing of Discovery for last year's firstpost-Columbia flight.

Best International SpaceStation construction crew: The STS-98astronauts, who deliveredthe U.S. Destinyscience lab to the ISS in February 2001.

Best 2-for-1 deal: STS-83 in 1997. One mission. Twolaunches. Two landings. Led by JimHalsell, the crew cut short a science mission because of a failed fuelcell. 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 ferriedtwo 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" BillNelson. A native of Brevard County, Nelson's grandparents homesteaded onland where NASA eventually built the Shuttle LandingFacility. The politician-in-space flew aboard Columbia the mission beforethe Challenger accident.

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

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

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

Most star-crossedmission: STS-35 inDecember 1990. Repeatedly delayed during a six-month period by diabolical fuelleaks. Shuttle toilet broke in orbit.

Weirdest scienceexperiment: STS-58in 1993, the headless rat mission. A guillotine-like "rodentdispatcher" was used to "fix" rats in orbit as part of a lifesciences study.

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

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

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

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Aerospace Journalist

Todd Halvoron is a veteran aerospace journalist based in Titusville, Florida who covered NASA and the U.S. space program for 27 years with Florida Today. His coverage for Florida Today also appeared in USA Today, and 80 other newspapers across the United States. Todd earned a bachelor's degree in English literature, journalism and fiction from the University of Cincinnati and also served as Florida Today's Kennedy Space Center Bureau Chief during his tenure at Florida Today. Halvorson has been an independent aerospace journalist since 2013.