How It All Started
NASA: We have booster ignition and liftoff of Columbia, reaching new heights for women and X-ray Astronomy.
Just after midnight on July 23, 1999, the Space Shuttle Columbia launched into orbit with the heaviest payload ever carried by a shuttle. Its precious cargo was the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which has helped revolutionize our understanding of the Universe.
This Shuttle flight, known as STS-93, was historic. Not only did this flight carry Chandra into space, but it also marked the first time a woman, Eileen Collins, ever commanded a Space Shuttle. The other members of the crew, who were all crucial to the mission's success, were mission specialists Steven Hawley, Cady Coleman, and Michel Tognini, along with pilot Jeff Ashby.
For those scientists who were looking forward to using Chandra, being at the launch was particularly special. Dr. Belinda Wilkes, who uses Chandra to study black holes at the centers of galaxies, shares her memory of that night.
It was very exciting. It's the only launch I've ever seen so it's definitely a very memorable experience and I recommend it to anybody. But particularly when you're personally involved. It was very exciting. It was a night-time launch, which is dramatic. Probably more dramatic than during the day because it lights up the whole sky, and it looks like day for a certain length of time.
While the launch was exciting, it was also very stressful. Professor Claude Canizares oversaw the construction of Chandra's transmission gratings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As we approached midnight and the shuttle main engines, finally on the third try, lit up, my clothes, 3 miles away, were vibrating. Well, I was 3 miles away and my clothes were pretty heavy. Inside Chandra was this array of very thin plastic films with these absolutely submicroscopic features on them that of course we had tested acoustically as hard as we could, and we were convinced they would survive. But I have to tell you, when you're standing there and you feel the power of those engines, and you know what your little fragile baby is doing inside, you say, "Oh, I hope that hangs together!"
The successful launch and deployment of Chandra was no accident. Rather, it took years of dedication and hard work from many people. Dr. Harvey Tananbaum, director of the Chandra X-ray Center, has been involved with the mission since it was first conceived in 1976. He has seen how such a large and complicated mission such as Chandra really becomes more than the sum of its many, many parts.
The engineers have the expertise on how to build these complicated things and the managers make sure you stay on some kind of a schedule and budget, and all the different disciplines and different entities, industry, university, science research community and NASA, really working together, I think provide a wonderful model for large projects to be looking at to say, "How do you do these challenging things and how do you build them and get the kind of end-result where everybody's very proud and very pleased with what they did?"
Roger Brissenden, manager of Chandra's Operation Control Center, agrees that it is the team approach that has led to Chandra's good health and performance.
It's a major asset for NASA and the taxpayer, and it's the premier x-ray observatory. So we understand that and we take that very seriously. And I think that we've continued the partnership with NASA, not just through the launch period, but all the way now, 7 years in operations with that same sort of perspective.
So, Happy 8th Birthday, Chandra. And thanks and congratulations to all of the men and women who worked so diligently to make it a great eight years, with hopefully many more to come.