The History of the Space Shuttle

As we watch the crew of the last Space Shuttle mission go through their tasks, it is with a sense of sadness that we reflect on what has been, for most of us, a lifetime experience.  The United States has been at the pinnacle of space exploration.  It would appear that those days are swiftly becoming history as we now must pay exorbitant fees to catch a ride with the Russians to the International Space Station. The Space Shuttle was a glorious invention and its history proves this premise.

One would think that the Apollo moon landing program would pre-date the Space Shuttle. And for those who think so, we would be mistaken. Before the 1969 Apollo moon landing, NASA had begun studying space shuttle designs.  Space Shuttle designs and plans were given the labels “Phase A” which were the pre-1969 ideas, while “Phase B” designs in 1970 were more detailed. According to NASA, the Space Task Group, formed by President Richard Nixon, evaluated the studies and then recommended a space strategy that included building a space shuttle.

In those early days the debate centered on the optimal shuttle design for capability, cost of development as well as operating cost. The current design was chosen because it featured a reusable orbiter, rocket boosters and expendable external tanks. ,

The Shuttle program officially began January 5, 1972. President Nixon announced that NASA would build a reusable Space Shuttle system.  North American Aviation, now Rockwell International, was selected to be the prime contractor for the program.  The solid rocket boosters were built by Morton Thiokol, now part of Alliant Techsystems. The external take was built by Martin Marietta, now Lockheed Martin. The Space Shuttle main engines were built by Rocketdyne.

The first Orbiter was originally named Constitution, but Star Trek television series fans wrote in to the White House in massive numbers and convinced them to name the Orbiter Enterprise. The Enterprise was rolled out on September 17, 1976 and later successfully conducted glide, approach and landing tests that validated the program. The first fully functional Shuttle was Columbia, delivered to Kennedy on March 25, 1979. First launch of a Space Shuttle was on April 12th 1981 which happened to be the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight.

Challenger was delivered to Kennedy in July 1982, Discovery in November 1983, and Atlantis April, 1985. January 28th, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger was ascending toward space when it disintegrated, killing the seven astronauts on the mission. Endeavor replaced Challenger in May 1991. 

During re-entry on February 1, 2003 Columbia was lost with her seven crew members because heat tiles were damaged by foam falling from the external fuel tank during launch. This shuttle has never been replaced. The damage was not known until after the tragedy was studied at length. NASA then added measures during subsequent flights that allowed astronauts to check the belly of each Shuttle for damage before re-entry.

There have been no incidents since the 2003 loss, as the Space Shuttle continued to ferry parts, science experiments and astronauts to the International Space Station. The current mission, STS-135, is the last mission of the Space Shuttle program.