The Iconic Space Shuttle System
The American Space Shuttles
The Space Transportation System (STS), as it was officially known (but more popularly known as the Space Shuttles), was a reusable spaceplane operated by NASA that was used to reach low Earth orbit and return to land on a runway. The Shuttle system consisted of the Shuttle vehicle itself (often referred to as the Orbiter), an External liquid oxygen and hydrogen Tank (ET) and two Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) strapped to the side which were recovered, and reused, leaving the External Tank to burn up on reentry.
The first shuttle built was the Enterprise in 1976 (at the conclusion of the Apollo Program), which was primarily built for aerodynamic and landing tests. The inaugural flight into space launched from the Kennedy Space Center (as were all launches) and was made by the Shuttle Columbia in 1981. Initially, there were four Shuttles built, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis. Following the loss of the Challenger during launch in 1986, the Endeavour was built as a replacement. No replacement was built following the loss of Columbia during reentry in 2003. There were a total of 135 missions made by the Space Shuttles from 1981 to 2011 amassing over 1322 days in orbit!
The Shuttle typically launched 7 astronauts to conduct a variety of mission objectives, from conducting space-based science experiments, launching interplanetary probes (like Magellan), satellites, placing the famous Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and its subsequent servicing missions. During the later years the missions revolved around constructing and servicing the International Space Station, sadly at the conclusion of which the Space Shuttle was retired when Atlantis's STS-135 landed back on Earth on July 21, 2011.
Check out America’s first Shuttle! The Enterprise, named after Star Trek’s fictional starship the USS Enterprise, was the first ‘orbiter’ built for NASA, in 1976, as part of the Space Shuttle program to perform flight and ground tests. It was originally intended to be fitted out with the systems which would make it ‘space worthy’, but instead they built other Orbiters and retired the poor spacecraft before it ever even go to space!
The Space Shuttle Columbia was the first built to go into space and finally launched with a two-man crew after extensive testing on April 12, 1981! Columbia had a distinguished career over 22 years, completing 27 successful missions before, tragically, breaking up on reentry from its 28th mission on February 1st, 2003 killing all 7 crew members.
The Space Shuttle Challenger was the second Shuttle NASA put into service, with its maiden flight occurring on April 4, 1983. Challenger completed 9 missions, but during launch on its 10th mission it dramatically broke up after 73 seconds due to a leaking Solid Rocket Booster seal caused the External fuel Tank to rupture resulting in the deaths of the 7 crew members.
The Space Shuttle Discovery was the third of five operational ‘orbiters’ to be flown by NASA from 1984 until its retirement in 2011. Discovery completed 39 launches and landings over its 27 years of service, completing more spaceflights than any other spacecraft in history! It is quite possibly the most famous Shuttle as it launched and serviced the Hubble Space Telescope along with many scientific missions and was responsible for a number of assembly missions during construction of the International Space Station.
NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis was the fourth operational Shuttle to go into service with its first mission launching on 3rd October 1985, by the time it flew the last Shuttle mission landing back at Kennedy Space Center on July 21st 2011 it had orbited the Earth 4,848 times covering over 203 million kilometres!! Click here to read more about Atlantis’ stella career!
Endeavour, NASAs fifth and final Orbiter, was named after the British vessel HMS Endeavour which Captain Cook sailed on his voyage of discovery. Endeavour was built to replace the Challenger that was lost in 1986 and went on to complete 25 missions including 12 to the International Space Station! You can learn more about this impressive feat of engineering by reading about it here!