Twenty Years Ago Today: Space Shuttle Discovery Returns to Earth

572px-Sts-60_crew Twenty years ago today, the space shuttle Discovery returned to Earth after mission STS-60. The shuttle was NASA's re-usable orbiter, long derided as a compromise that satisfied nobody at twice the price, but nevertheless it took part in a number of important spacefaring firsts. And this is one of them.

So was it that they had a woman on board? Don't be silly. Was it that they had an African-American? No, of course not. What about that Costa Rican guy? Well, okay, he was the first Costa Rican in space, but this was far from his first mission.

No, the clue is in the flags: two of them, and one was from a nation with which the US had been fighting an undeclared war for much of the last forty-five years. The Russian Republic, successor state to the Soviet Union, America's great rival in the cold war space race, sent Sergei Krikalev as the first cosmonaut to ride on the space shuttle.

Although Russia still had their groundbreaking (or is that spacebreaking?) station Mir in orbit (which is where Krikalev had been when the Soviet Union was dissolved), this was not Discovery's destination. This mission was one of science. A number of experiments were conducted in a SPACEHAB module, and the Wake Shield Facility had its first trial - a stainless steel disc that, when towed behind the shuttle through the incredibly thin atmosphere of low earth orbit, caused an 'ultra-vacuum' to be created in its wake.

The co-operation begun with STS-60 has continued ever since - to the point where it's now the US that relies on the Russians to put their astronauts in orbit, following the end of the shuttle programme. Sergei Krikalev went on to be part of the very first expedition to the ISS, and commander of Expedition 11. And the commander of STS-60, Charles Bolden, is now in charge of NASA itself.

(There was another first as well: apparently this was the first time that proper ice cream was taken into orbit, because they were testing a freezer unit. Yum!)

Here's the post-flight presentation: lots of video from the mission, narrated by the astro/cosmonauts themselves. Fascinating stuff!