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About The Film

In the words of former Kennedy Space Center Deputy Director James Jennings, the Space Shuttle was one of the greatest programs this country has ever had. “No matter where you were when the Space Shuttle launched--just for that brief moment--everybody was hoping and praying for the same thing: that we were going to be successful.” And yet, from the moment NASA first shared its vision for the Shuttle as a safe, frequent and affordable ferry to space, its track record would demonstrate the exact opposite: Estimated costs of $20 million would sky-rocket to a whopping $1.6 billion per flight; projected schedules of 60 missions a year never exceeded nine, and a machine that was repeatedly billed as safe and dependable resulted in the deaths of fourteen astronauts (the deadliest space vehicle on record to date).

Flying for thirty years, there is great disagreement about whether the Space Shuttle, as the world’s first reusable spacecraft, was truly a success story. In this feature-length documentary, When We Were Shuttle will get to the core of its legacy by tapping into the humanity behind the Shuttle Program–hearing directly from some of the exceptional men and women who worked behind-the-scenes to make it fly. What in their opinions made the Program special? Why was it necessary? How did their involvement with Shuttle impact their lives, their families and the greater community of Florida’s Space Coast? Through recollections and personal archive, WLRN Public Television’s latest film explores their fondest memories and darkest hours: from the launching and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction of the International Space Station, to the loss of Shuttles Challenger and Columbia in accidents that were ultimately seen as avoidable, and in many ways served as the impetus for the fleet’s early retirement.

For all its flaws, one of the greatest takeaways of the Shuttle Program is its attempt to be a great equalizer–both in space and on the ground. The Astronaut Corps during the Shuttle years was intentionally more reflective of America at large, more diverse in race, gender, cultural and professional backgrounds. During the Shuttle years, both NASA and its contractors also made attempts to increase the number of women and minorities in its ranks, from blue-collar and administrative positions to ones in management and leadership.

Unlike other documentaries which offer a top-down approach, focusing on the narratives of astronauts and figureheads, When We Were Shuttle delivers a unique and intimate character-driven portrait of the Space Shuttle years. As both NASA and now companies in the private sector push to make space travel more cost-effective, reliable and ultimately more routine, the social history captured in this story offers viewers a more holistic framework for understanding our collective spaceflight history, giving us in turn a better platform for determining not just where we might want to go in our continued exploration of space, but how we go about doing it.

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The Space Shuttle Era

January 5, 1972

Presidential Direction to Pursue Shuttle

On January 5, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon announced that NASA would proceed with the development of a reusable low cost space shuttle system. NASA and its aerospace industry contractors continued engineering studies through January and February of 1972. Finally, on March 15, 1972, NASA announced that the shuttle would use two solid propellant rocket motors. The decision was based on study results that showed that the solid rocket system offered lower development cost and lower technical risk.

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Then, NASA Administrator James Fletcher and President Richard Nixon discuss an early model of the Space Shuttle.

September 17, 1976

The First Space Shuttle Orbiter Rolls Out

Enterprise, the first Space Shuttle Orbiter, was rolled out of Palmdale assembly facility on September 17, 1976. The shuttle was constructed without engines or a functional heat shield and was incapable of spaceflight. Rather, the shuttle took part in several atmospheric flight tests. In February, 1977, Enterprise took part in the nine month long Approach and Landing Test program where it performed manned and unmanned flight tests and was mated atop a 747 shuttle carrier aircraft.

The space shuttle Enterprise in launch position at Kennedy Space Center. This is the first time the complete space shuttle configuration has been assembled.
Source: The U.S. National Archives
April 12, 1981

STS-1 Mission Launches

STS-1 marked the first orbital flight of the Space Shuttle Program. Columbia (OV-102), the first of NASA's orbiter fleet, was delivered to Kennedy Space Center in March 1979. Columbia initiated the Space Shuttle flight program when it lifted off on April 12, 1981. Shuttle Columbia orbited the Earth 37 times in 54.5 hours, and successfully landed at Edwards Air Force Base. Columbia was destroyed over east Texas on its landing descent to Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 1, 2003. The Columbia disaster directly led to the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011.

Space Shuttle Columbia rolls towards Launch Pad 39A, sitting atop the Mobile Launcher Platform, which in turn is carried by the crawler-transporter underneath.
Source: NASA Media Archive
January 28, 1986

Challenger STS 51-L

Space Shuttle Challenger began Mission STS-51L with a launch from Kennedy Space Center at 11:38:00 a.m. EST on January 28, 1986. Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, and a crew of seven astronauts perished. The cause was an O-ring seal failure in right solid rocket booster due to cold weather and wind shears.

Space shuttle Challenger being moved to the launch pad on the crawler.
Source: Wikimedia
August 30, 1984

Discovery STS-41-D Longest Serving Orbiter

Space Shuttle Discovery is the third of five fully operational orbiters to be built. Its first mission, STS-41-D, flew from August 30 to September 5, 1984. Discovery, the longest-serving orbiter, flew 39 missions from 1984 to 2011 — spending a total of 365 days in space. Discovery also flew every type of mission during the space shuttle era, earning numerous awards. Discovery exemplifies the full scope of human spaceflight from 1981 to 2011.

Space Shuttle Discovery approaches the ramp on its rollout to Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.
Source: NASA Media Archive
October 3, 1985

Atlantis STS-51-J Delivering Communications

Mission STS-51-J was the first flight of space shuttle Atlantis, launching Oct. 3, 1985 to deliver a communications satellite for the Department of Defense. Studies also were conducted by the crew on space motion sickness, cardiovascular deconditioning, muscle loss, changes in coordination, balance strategies, and changes in the body's biochemistry.

Space shuttle Atlantis, OV-104, was delivered to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, in April of 1985.
Source: NASA/KSC
May 7, 1991

Endeavour OV-105 Mission Accomplished

Authorization to construct the fifth Space Shuttle orbiter as a replacement for Challenger was granted by Congress on August 1, 1987. Endeavour (OV-105) first arrived at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility May 7,1991. The space agency's newest orbiter began flight operations in May 1992 on mission STS-49, the Intelsat VI repair mission. Endeavour flew into space 25 times. Among other career highlights, its crew members performed the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. Endeavour also reached the Mir space station once and the International Space Station multiple times. Its 25th and final mission, STS-134, was in May 2011.

pace Shuttle Endeavour on Launch Pad 39A and ready for prelaunch processing after its 3.4-mile journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building.
Source/Credit: NASA/George Shelton
July 8, 2011

The final flight of the Space Shuttle program: STS-135

The Space Shuttle Program reached a close in 2011 after 30 years of spaceflight. The last impacts of the program continue to this day.

Space shuttle Atlantis' drag chute slows the shuttle as it lands on Runway 15 at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Credits: NASA/Kenny Allen

Producer & Director Zachary Weil

Zachary Weil is the owner and operator of Contact Light Films. Founded in 2015, Contact Light was created to share stories that inspire and motivate younger generations toward positions of public service and leadership. This led to producing hundreds of short-form pieces highlighting the philanthropic efforts of Fortune 500 companies from Toyota and Target to campaigns for nationally recognized non-profits like the 20MM Foundation and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.

In 2019, Zack produced and directed his first feature-length documentary, When We Were Apollo, highlighting the efforts of behind-the-scenes workers of the Apollo Space Program. First aired by PBS Member Station WLRN in South Florida, the film was distributed nationally through the National Education Television Association (NETA) before winning a Regional Emmy in the historical documentary category.

In 2021, Zack served as Festival Producer for the Camden International Film Festival in Mid-Coast Maine. Currently, he's producing and directing When We Were Shuttle for WLRN, highlighting the experiences of individuals who worked behind-the-scenes on the U.S. Space Shuttle Program. Anticipated release date through American Public Television is Spring 2023. Zack lives with his wife Mary, their daughter Eowyn and their dog Hobbes in Minneapolis, Minnesota.