As we all know, the success of the space program did not end with the Apollo missions. In fact, after the success of the Apollo 11 mission, NASA proposed a plan that included human flights to mars, a series of large space stations to be developed during the 1970s, and a new, reusable space transportation system to send people and supplies to those stations. However, this plan was rejected due to the lack of interest in major space programs. Thankfully, in 1972, NASA received presidential approval to develop a partially reusable transport vehicle called a space shuttle.
The plans for the space shuttle began underway. The shuttle was to be used as a space platform to conduct in-orbit research for periods as long as two weeks. The space shuttle design had three major components: a reusable winged orbiter to carry crew and cargo, a large external tank to carry the liquid-oxygen and liquid-hydrogen propellants for the engines, and two solid-fuel rockets to be used in accelerating the vehicle during the first two minutes of flight. A fleet of four operational orbiters, named Columbia, Challenger, Atlantis, and Discovery, was built in order to allow multiple shuttle flights each year. Facilities in Florida originally constructed for the Apollo program were remodeled for shuttle use.
The first space shuttle flight took place on April 12, 1981. Aboard the flight were astronauts John W. Young, a veteran of the Apollo programs, and Robert Laurel Crippen. With additional shuttle flights following the first flight, it became clear that the vehicle’s operational costs and performance were not working out the way it was expected. Major refurbishment was required between each launch, decreasing the amount of launches that could occur each year. The highest flight rate achieved was in 1985, when the shuttle was launched nine times. Each launch cost hundreds of millions of dollars, rather than the tens of millions that had been promised in 1972.
On January 28, 1986, the Challenger orbiter was destroyed in a catastrophic explosion, 73 seconds after liftoff. Its seven-person crew perished; among them was schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, on board as the first private citizen in space. After the accident, the shuttle fleet was grounded until September 1988. A replacement orbiter, Endeavour, was built, but, upon the resumption of flights, the shuttle fleet was operated with much greater assurances for the safety of its crew. This limited the flight rate to six to eight missions per year. The shuttle program suffered its second fatal disaster on February 1, 2003, when the orbiter Columbia broke up over Texas at an altitude of about 60 km (40 miles) as it was returning from an orbital mission. All seven crew members died, including Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut to go into space. The shuttle fleet was once again grounded during the ensuing investigation into the cause of the accident.
At the end of the space shuttle program, NASA had made 135 successful launches, ending with the successful launch and landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on July 21, 2011. NASA’s space shuttle fleet will retire and be on display at institutions across the country to inspire the next generation of explorers and engineers. It is important to understand that the end of the space shuttle program does not mean the end of NASA or even of NASA sending humans into space. NASA has a robust program of exploration, technology development, and scientific research that will last for years to come.Tweet