Plans for the Space Shuttle were created in 1972 as a way to keep the cost of spaceflight down. The first space shuttle orbiter Enterprise flew in 1977, and in 1981 the reusable craft Columbia started to fly missions.
The five STS (Shuttle Transportation System) vehicles – Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor – made space flight look as easy as an aeroplane flight.
Each Shuttle was supposed to fly fifty missions per year. although they actually averaged approximately four flights a year.
Tragedy struck on 28 January 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded during the launch of its 10th mission, killing all six crew members and one ‘Teacher in Space’ participant. CNN was on hand to film the launch and broadcast the tragedy live on their international cable network.
About one minute after lift-off, the ground controllers informed the crew that they were “go” for “throttle up”.
The last words from the Challenger crew that were heard by Mission Control were Commander Dick Scobee’s, “Roger, go with throttle up,” and then about two-tenths of a second before the explosion, Commander Michael Smith’s “Uh-oh”. Within days we knew all about O-rings and the explosive decompression of liquid hydrogen.
Before the Challenger tragedy, the space program almost seemed invincible. The shuttles went up, the shuttles landed – It wasn’t even exciting anymore, just another shuttle trip.
The Shuttle had an operational altitude of only 120 to 600 miles (its trips to the International Space Station (ISS) were only a 200 – 250 mile journey). The Shuttle also flew to the Hubble Telescope, which is maintained at an altitude of 350 miles.
For comparison, the distance between the Earth and the Moon is 238,000 miles.
The explosion of the Columbia killed seven more astronauts during re-entry of its 28th mission in 2003. This tragedy meant that the STS had now killed more people than any other space vehicle in history.
Each Shuttle was designed for only ten years of life, but NASA kept the Shuttle flying for twenty years past its expiration date. By the time the Shuttle program was scrapped in 2012 a total of 355 people had flown on the five Shuttles on 135 missions – at a total lifetime cost of about US$173 billion.
One of the many reasons the Shuttles were so expensive was because some of the equipment used to launch – such as the external tank – were non-reusable and had to be replaced with each launch. The equipment was also very old. Designed in the 1970s and completed in the 1980s, the Shuttle had some modifications over the years, but for the most part, it remained frozen in time.
Famously, at one point, NASA had to find parts for the Shuttle – parts that no one else made anymore – on eBay.
17 April 2012 saw the (piggy-backed) final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Space Shuttle launch video (with audio) (HD)