During the Space Race of the 1950s and 60s, astronauts were revered much like professional athletes, movie stars and musicians are today. Americans were fascinated with the complexity and romance of space flight. After astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, interest started to dwindle. Having beat the Russians to the moon, the Apollo program ran its course and Congress cut funding for the final three moon missions for budgetary reasons [source: Time]. Attention then turned to developing a reusable vehicle for space exploration. This was officially known as the Space Transportation System, and unofficially as the Space Shuttle Program.
In the years since, NASA's space shuttle has been the agency's primary vehicle. The shuttle is the most advanced vehicle ever built. It is the only vehicle with a payload capable of transporting modules used to construct the International Space Station and is the only reusable spacecraft in the world. But the shuttle program is coming to an end. The plan was for NASA to build another space vehicle that could go eventually to Mars, but with NASA billions of dollars over budget and over time, President Barack Obama and Congress decided not to extend the space shuttle program [source: Koch].
Over that 30-year period, the shuttle program has seen its ups and downs. Six space shuttles, referred to by NASA as orbiters, were built with five made mission- capable (Discovery, Atlantis, Columbia, Endeavor and Challenger). Enterprise was built as a test vehicle and was never outfitted for space flight. From 1981 through 2010, the five orbiters flew 132 missions.
Of those five orbiters, NASA lost two in catastrophic accidents: Space Shuttle Challenger was lost 73 seconds into its 10th flight in January 1986 and Columbia broke apart on re-entry in 2003. Fourteen astronauts were killed in the two accidents. (NASA is set to retire the remaining three upon the completion of Endeavor's 134th flight in 2011.) The program is expensive too: It costs the U.S. $550 million for each shuttle mission [source: Associated Press]. But the shuttle program has seen its fair share of inspiring moments. Here is a list of 10 such moments culminating with the NASA's last planned shuttle mission.
10: The First Shuttle Mission: STS-1 (April 12-14, 1981)
In April 1981, on the 20th anniversary of the first human space flight, NASA successfully launched Columbia as the first shuttle mission. Veteran astronaut John Young was tasked to be the commander, with Bob Crippen as pilot. While later shuttle missions would carry crews of seven, Young and Crippen were a two-man show. The flight marked the first time in NASA's history the agency ushered in a new spacecraft without the benefit of an unmanned test flight [source: NASA].
For two days Young and Crippen tested the shuttle's many systems including the altitude and maneuvering thrusters and the navigation systems. Young landed Columbia on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base 54 hours after lift-off. Columbia made 36 orbits on that first journey and became the first fixed-wing spacecraft to land on a runway. Young would go on to command STS-9 and is the only astronaut to fly to and walk on the moon and fly the space shuttle [source: NASA].
9: First Teacher in Space: STS-118 (Aug. 8-21, 2007)
More than 20 years after the initial attempt to send a teacher in space, Barbara Morgan finally brought closure to one of the most tragic events of the space program. Morgan was Christa McAuliffe's backup on STS-51 when Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight on January 28, 1986. NASA had lost astronauts before: Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White all perished on the launch pad during tests for the Apollo 1 mission. But McAuliffe and her six crewmembers were the first to lose their lives during flight -- and certainly the first to do so in front of a worldwide audience.
Morgan's flight brought with it little fanfare. Shuttle missions had since been considered routine and rarely did many outside of the NASA community and space junkies take notice. The mission itself was less than spectacular. Astronauts conducted four extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) and installed a 7,000-pound (3,175 kilogram) storage platform on the International Space Station. Fittingly, Morgan, a former elementary school teacher, and the other astronauts talked to students from space during three separate events. The crew fielded questions and spoke with children much the way McAuliffe was to have done on her flight more than 20 years earlier [source: NASA]. Morgan spent 12 days, 17 hours and 55 minutes in space and flew just the one mission before retiring from NASA in 2008 [source NASA].
8: Sally takes a Ride -- First American woman in space: STS-7 (June 18-24, 1983)
The Space Race can best be remembered by the many firsts in space flight. The U.S.S.R. and U.S. fought for space dominance in what would be perhaps the defining element of the Cold War. But the U.S. and NASA, always seemed to be behind the curve. The Soviets launched the first satellite in Sputnik into orbit, the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin) and, on June 16, 1963, the first woman in space in Valentina Tereshkova. It took the U.S. two decades to match that last feat, but in June 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space [source: NASA].
Ride served as a mission specialist aboard Challenger and spent 147 hours in orbit (compared to Tereshkova's 71) conducting experiments and assisting in the launch of two satellites. Ride's flight was also the first shuttle mission to feature a five-member crew. Ride had been an astronaut since 1979 and would fly a second mission in 1984 before moving to NASA headquarters in 1986 [source: NASA].
7: First Shuttle-Mir Docking: STS-71 (June 27-July 7, 1995)
Rivals during the Space Race met once again in orbit when space shuttle Atlantis docked with Russian Space Station Mir during the summer of 1995. It wasn't the first time the two countries met in space. In 1975 astronauts and cosmonauts rendezvoused during the Apollo-Soyuz test project [source: NASA].
Atlantis' flight was the 100th manned space flight in U.S. history. The mission itself went off without a hitch. American astronaut Norman Thagard had already been on Mir for more than 100 days when Atlantis approached in late June. Mission commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson executed a near-perfect docking, missing perfect alignment with the docking platform by less than an inch and 0.5 degree off axis from perpendicular. When the two vehicles were linked, it formed the largest spacecraft ever [source: NASA].
Atlantis carried two Russian cosmonauts, who constituted Mir 19, and swapped them out with two returning cosmonauts and Thagard. While docked, crewmembers conducted several biomedical investigations and the crew from Mir 18 exercised rigorously to prepare for the stresses of re-entry after living in the weightless environment of Mir for such a long period of time. STS-71 was one of 11 missions to Mir and would lay the groundwork for the International Space Station missions [source: NASA].
6: Bluford breaks the color barrier: STS-8 (Aug 30-Sept. 5, 1983)
On a soggy August morning in 1983, five astronauts made their way out to launch pad 39A to board space shuttle Challenger. One of them was about to make history. On the heels of Sally Ride's historic flight, NASA wasted no time in checking off yet another first when Guy Bluford became the first African-American in space on Aug. 30, 1983 [source: NASA].
Bluford was one of three African-Americans to join NASA in 1978 (along with Ronald McNair, who would perish on Challenger in 1986) and was more than qualified to be an astronaut [source: NASA]. He had earned several degrees, including a bachelor of science in aerospace engineering and a doctorate in aerospace engineering before becoming a pilot in the Air Force, where he flew 144 combat missions in Vietnam [source: NASA].
Bluford's flight broke the color barrier in space. The mission was also the first shuttle launch at night. In addition, Challenger conducted several tests and experiments for the first time including dropping down to a relatively low 139-mile (224-kilometer) orbit in an attempt to determine why the orbiter glows at night in the thin atomic oxygen. [source: NASA]. Bluford's first mission lasted 6 days, 1 hour and 8 minutes. He would go on to fly three more missions and log a total of 688 hours in space [source: NASA].
5: Glenn Returns to Space: STS-95 (Oct. 29-Nov. 7, 1998)
John Glenn made history as the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. Thirty-six years after his iconic flight aboard Friendship 7, Glenn made history again aboard space shuttle Discovery as the oldest human in space, at age 77.
Glenn left NASA in 1964, working briefly as a business executive until he became a senator in Ohio. From 1974 to 1999 Glenn served in the Senate before retiring altogether. But in 1998, NASA came calling again. The mission drew plenty of media attention and its fair share of critics. Some questioned the credibility of the science NASA stated Glenn's flight would provide. Many viewed Glenn's return flight as a public relations stunt in the face of recent cutbacks in funding. The fact that close to 4,000 reporters converged on Kennedy Space Center only fueled that speculation. Some questioned whether sending a 77-year-old man to space was even safe [source: Holman].
Glenn's responsibilities aboard Discovery were minimal and NASA used the flight to investigate the aging process. In the end, then-NASA administrator Dan Goldin perhaps revealed the true motivation for Glenn's flight when he said, "Senator Glenn is owed a second flight by America" [source: Holman]. Glenn made the trip without any medical issues.
4: Hubble takes flight: STS-31 (April 24-29, 1990)
The opening monologue of the original "Star Trek" stated the goal of exploring "strange new worlds" and boldly going "where no man has gone before." Those statements were realized with the invention of the Hubble Space Telescope. Named after renowned American astronomer Edwin Hubble, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope onboard Discovery in April 1990. Discovery's crew set Hubble 380 miles (611 kilometers) above Earth with hopes of capturing images from deep space. Unfortunately, a design flaw in the telescope's 7-foot (2-meter) wide mirror temporarily thwarted Hubble's mission. The images taken by the telescope were fuzzy, so in 1993, astronauts installed a new mirror and Hubble finally worked as designed [source: Barnbaum].
Because of its vantage point in space, Hubble is void of atmospheric distortion, and thus can capture vivid images unattainable by telescopes on Earth. And because of its size, Hubble can catch images of galaxies beyond our own [source: NASA]. NASA would service Hubble four more times over the next 16 years before deciding against any further missions [source: NASA]. Over its life in space, Hubble has taken hundreds of thousands of amazing photos and made countless discoveries. Despite its rough beginnings, the Hubble Space Telescope is widely considered the most pioneering device in astronomy since the Galileo telescope.
3: Eileen Collins becomes first woman commander in NASA's return to space: STS-114 (July 26-Aug. 9, 2005)
The 2003 Columbia disaster grounded the shuttle program for three years while NASA engineers tried to make sense out of the loss of the agency's second orbiter. Finally, when it was time to return to mission status, NASA called on Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a shuttle, to lead the administration back to space. It would also be Collins' first flight as commander, making her the first woman to fly and command the shuttle. Collins proved to be the perfect fit for NASA's return to space. She had been the first woman to fly the shuttle in 1995 and was a veteran of three space flights [source: NASA].
During the mission, the crew put Discovery through the first series of external visual inspections of the orbiter that would become standard operating procedure on subsequent missions. In the wake of Columbia's accident in which foam from the external fuel tank fatally damaged the orbiter's wing during launch, the crew took photographs of the tiles on the Discovery's underbelly using the robotic arm as well as from the International Space Station and sent them back to Mission Control for analysis. Collins led the mission flawlessly and upon her return, retired from flight status [source: NASA].
2: Discovery's last ride: STS-133 (TBD 2011)
When Discovery makes its final voyage (currently scheduled for February 2011), it will go out in style by carrying the first humanoid robot in space. Discovery will drop off a permanent resident to the International Space Station, called Robonaut 2 [source: NASA]. This is significant because NASA hopes R2 will someday be able to aid astronauts in spacewalks outside of the station to help make repairs or do scientific work.
The R2 mission is just one more in a string of firsts for Discovery. It ferried the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and set the Ulysses robotic probe on its journey to the sun. It safely carried Eileen Collins into space twice as she became the first female pilot, then commander to fly the shuttle. Other milestones include ferrying the first African-American spacewalker, Bernard Harris, to space, as well as giving John Glenn a lift back into orbit 36 years after he piloted the first manned orbital mission. Discovery also made the first rendezvous with Space Station Mir on STS-63.
Discovery's retirement will be much-deserved. As the workhorse of the shuttle program, Discovery will have flown more missions to space, 39, than any other vehicle and spent nearly a full calendar year orbiting Earth (352 days as of Dec 2010). As a result, it's logged the most miles of any spacecraft in human history [source: NASA].
1: The final countdown: STS-134 (TBD 2011)
When space shuttle Endeavor touches down at the end of its journey into space in 2011, it will signal the end of an era. STS-134 will be NASA's 134th and final space shuttle mission. Consequently, upon the retirement of the shuttle fleet, NASA will no longer have a launch vehicle capable of taking astronauts and large amounts of cargo to the International Space Station and will instead rely on the Russians to give the U.S. a lift [source: Associated Press].
During its mission, Endeavor will ferry equipment and astronauts to the International Space Station for the 36th and final time. While STS-134 is the last scheduled shuttle flight, Atlantis will be prepped and ready for launch in an emergency as is customary for some shuttle missions. NASA has not ruled out the possibility of a final mission for Atlantis.
Lots More Information
- Apollo Mission Pictures
- Sunspot and Solar Flare Pictures
- 10 Outdated Astronomical Theories
- Future Space Exploration Puzzles
- Solar System Puzzles
- Associated Press. "Russia's Soyuz soon to be only lifeline to space." Dec. 13, 2010. (Dec. 13, 2010) http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gNH3EiODOht-zh2sWhoKHxB95wSA?docId=f4a319aa6ac84f609b4a5b0a2fd4a0e0
- Barnbaum, Cecilia. World Book Online Reference Center. "Hubble Space Telescope." 2004 (Dec. 1, 2010)http://www.nasa.gov/worldbook/hubble_telescope_worldbook.html
- Encyclopedia Britannica. "Valentina Tereshkova." Dec. 1, 2010.http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/587896/Valentina-Tereshkova
- Holman, Kwame. PBS.org. "Rocket Man: John Glenn's Return to Space." Oct. 28, 1998. (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/science/july-dec98/glenn_10-28.html
- Koch, Tom. ABC News. "What does end of space shuttle program mean to US?" Nov. 5, 2010. (Dec. 2, 2010) http://abclocal.go.com/ktrk/story?section=news/technology&id=7766055
- NASA. "20 Years of Hubble." (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/story/index.html
- NASA. "Apollo-Soyuz Test Project." (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo-soyuz/index.html
- NASA. "Astronaut Biography: Barbara Morgan." (Dec. 1, 2010)http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/morgan.html
- NASA. "Astronaut Biography: Eileen Collins." (Dec. 1, 2010)http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/collins.html
- NASA. "Astronaut Biography: Guion Bluford." (Dec. 1, 2010)http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/bluford-gs.html
- NASA. "Astronaut Biography: John Glenn." http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/about/bios/glennbio.html
- NASA. "Astronaut Biography: John Young." (Dec. 1, 2010)http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/young.html
- NASA. "Astronaut Biography: Sally K. Ride." (Dec. 1, 2010)http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/ride-sk.html
- NASA. "Guy Bluford Remembered Twenty Years Later." Sept. 2, 2003. (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.nasa.gov/vision/space/workinginspace/bluford_1st_african_amer.html
- NASA. "The Hubble Space Telescope." (Dec. 15, 2010)http://hubble.nasa.gov/missions/sm1.php
- NASA. "Mission Archives: STS-1." (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/archives/sts-1.html
- NASA. "Mission Archives: STS-8." (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/archives/sts-8.html
- NASA. "Robonaut 2." (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/robonaut.html
- NASA. "Shuttle-Mir." (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle-mir/index.html
- NASA. "Space Shuttle Flights by Orbiter." (Dec. 1, 2010)http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/launch/orbiter_flights.html
- NASA. "STS-7." (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/archives/sts-7.html
- NASA. "STS-8." (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/archives/sts-8.html
- NASA. "STS-71." (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/archives/sts-71.html
- NASA. "STS-118: 22nd Space Station Flight." (Dec. 1, 2010) NASA.http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/182309main_STS-118W.pdf
- NASA. "STS-125: The Final Visit." June 16, 2008. (Dec. 1,2010)http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/sts125/main/overview.html
- NASA. "STS-133: Final Flight of Discovery." Nov. 2, 2010. (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/sts133/discovery_final_flight.html
- NASA. "Yuri Gagarin: First Man in Space." (Dec. 1, 2010)http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/sts1/gagarin_anniversary.html
- Spacedaily.com. "Bush Cancels Space Shuttle Program." April 1, 2005. (Dec. 2, 2010) http://www.spacedaily.com/news/rocketscience-05o.html
- Time Magazine. "Science: Waning Moon Program." Sept. 14, 1970. (Dec. 12, 2010) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,902767,00.html
- Watson, Traci. USA Today. "Bittersweet triumph for first teacher in space." Aug. 9, 2007. (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/space/2007-08-08-endeavour_N.htm