IT was 40 years ago today that the space shuttle Enterprise flew on its own for the first time.

NASA had been confident that the shuttle could fly and land on its own and had carried out plenty of tests beforehand, but there was still a lot of bated breath around the world as a silver Boeing 747 rose from Edwards Air Force Base in California into the clear blue sky with Enterprise on its back.

The shuttle had no engines, and effectively was just a giant glider with a tailcone, but astronauts Gordon Fullerton and Fred Haise still had to fly and accurately land Enterprise – and yes, the Star Trek spacecraft did influence the choice of name – to prove that it could be done, that a shuttle could return and be re-used.

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MORE than 60,000 people gathered at Edwards to witness the historic moment when a shuttle flew on her own. Until then all the tests on the craft that was originally named the “Space Transportation System” had taken place with Enterprise firmly attached to the modified 747 that was named the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA).

At 8am on August 12, 1977, the SCA took off with test pilot Fitz Fulton in command. The SCA and Enterprise climbed for nearly 40 minutes to reach a cruising height of 24,000 ft, Fulton then put the SCA into a shallow dive and at precisely 8.48am, astronaut Haise fired the seven explosive blots to separate the two aircraft.

The SCA banked to the left and Haise took the shuttle to the right and began the long glide down to the landing area on Rogers Dry Lake. Even though they had no engines, Haise and Fullerton were able to experiment with the handling of Enterprise before they coolly brought the shuttle in to land, touching down after a free flight of five minutes and 21 seconds. It took Enterprise two miles to roll to a stop.

THE pictures shot around the world and the USA had proven that a spacecraft could be landed for re-use. The shuttle concept was triumphantly vindicated and it was full steam ahead for NASA’s programme, with the eventual design being the orbital shuttle launching on rocket boosters and then returning from space under its own power.

President Jimmy Carter was a reluctant supporter at first, but as a trained engineer himself, he became a fan of the Space Shuttle programme, though sadly for him, delays in construction meant he was out of office when the shuttle Columbia made the first flight into space after numerous tests on April 12, 1981. New President Ronald Reagan famously watched the launch from his bed in the White House to which he had just returned after John Hinckley’s failed assassination attempt.

Instead of the planned five shuttles, only four were built, with another kept for spares. That first flying shuttle Enterprise never actually made it into space.

IN terms of what it achieved, the Space Shuttle programme was an undoubted success. Yet because of the construction delays and cost overruns – the whole programme eventually cost more than $200 billion – the Shuttle was often seen as an expensive white elephant, not least because it was only in November, 1982, that Columbia first carried out full operational duties, with four astronauts aboard.

The first four operational shuttles – Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis – came into service during the 1980s, but the programme was halted in 1986 and the shuttles were grounded because of the Challenger Disaster.

CHALLENGER began to disintegrate and exploded just 73 seconds into its flight on January 28, 1986, with all seven crew members killed. Ronald Reagan ordered a full inquiry by the Rogers Commission and it was discovered that the infamous O-ring seal on the booster rocket failed because of the very cold conditions that day.

The shuttles flew again in September, 1988, with Discovery carrying out a successful mission.

Shuttle Endeavour replaced Challenger and first flew on May 7, 1992. Shuttle missions continued regularly, even after Columbia exploded on re-entry on February 1, 2003, again with no survivors in the seven-strong crew.

IT has to be remembered that the shuttle programme was extended by several years because of the need for it to service the much-delayed International Space Station. In all, there were 135 shuttle flights, and when NASA eventually retired the remaining craft in 2011, space shuttles had done everything from launching – and helping with the brilliant repair of – the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as transporting space labs with hundreds of experiments, and repairing seven satellites in space as well as supplying the space station. By the time the programme ended, 99 per cent of all hardware taken into space and returned to Earth had been carried aboard space shuttles.