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.