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Space Shuttle: End of an Era

Updated on May 06, 2016

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Space Shuttle Challenger
Space Shuttle Challenger | Source

As a kid growing up during the space race era of the 1960s I became enamored with space flight at a very early age. The Apollo missions that eventually led to man’s first visit to the moon had me glued to the television news and reading the newspaper reports of each mission. Back then this was big news, really big news. The Apollo flights were followed on television by the news stations virtually around the clock and the newspaper coverage was wall-to-wall articles and pictures of what was taking place. The United States was in a race to be the first country to put a man on the moon and the effort to accomplish this was nothing short of monumental. I remember my parents waking me up late in the evening hours on July 21st, 1969, so that I could witness Neil Armstrong become the first human being to set foot upon the surface of the moon at 10:56 pm. EST. This set the stage for a lifelong fascination with space and aviation.

Along came the Space Shuttle

Columbia lifting off during STS-1, the first Space Shuttle flight
Columbia lifting off during STS-1, the first Space Shuttle flight | Source

Following the Apollo Program came the era of the Space Shuttle. A reusable spacecraft that could take off like a rocket and glide back to earth and land like an ordinary airplane, the Shuttle program launched its first mission on April 12, 1981. After over 30 years of service to the United States, including a total of 135 missions, the Space Shuttle program ended on July 21, 2011 when its last mission was completed. Today, the Space Shuttles are preparing for retirement and as they head to their final resting locations around the country the era of NASA's manned space flight comes to an end for the time being. The long and storied career of the Space Shuttle fleet was certainly a technological success but the story of the Space Shuttle was not without tragedy and sacrifice.

Enterprise

Enterprise being released from it 747 mother-ship.
Enterprise being released from it 747 mother-ship. | Source

The Space Shuttle Enterprise was actually the first shuttle built but it never flew into space. Enterprise was completed on September 17, 1976. The shuttle Enterprise was built as a prototype and was used by NASA for flight testing and pilot training. Built without engines or the protective heat shields to protect it during atmospheric re-entry it was never capable of flying into space.

The first flight of Enterprise was atop a modified 747 on February 18, 1977. Enterprise would eventually have five missions where it was released from its 747 mother-ship and and guided to a landing by an astronaut pilot. Enterprise will be retired to the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York.

Columbia

Columbia
Columbia | Source

The first shuttle launch ever was on April 12, 1981, by the Space Shuttle Columbia. In fact, Columbia flew the first five missions as it was the only ship completed and ready for flight. Between 1981 and 2003 the shuttle Columbia flew a total of 28 missions. It was tragically destroyed upon re-entry over Texas on January 16, 2003, on its way to a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The resulting investigation pointed to a piece of foam insulation that broke free from the external fuel tank during the launch and damaged the protective heat shielding tiles on the left wing. The extreme heat generated during re-entry caused structural damage to the now unprotected area of the left wing and the spacecraft quickly came apart resulting in the deaths of all seven crew members.


Challenger

Challenger piercing the fog as it rolls toward the launch pad.
Challenger piercing the fog as it rolls toward the launch pad. | Source

The second Space Shuttle to enter service and fly a mission was the Challenger. The Space Shuttle Challenger flew its first mission on April 4, 1983. During its brief history Challenger flew ten missions. Who can forget the horrific accident on January 28, 1986, when the Challenger was tragically destroyed 73 seconds after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center. This particular flight had garnered the attention of the world as it was to be the first Teacher in Space flight with New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard.

The investigation into the accident discovered that a faulty O-ring separating sections of the solid rocket boosters had failed resulting in a catastrophic structural failure of the booster rocket, which subsequently caused the shuttle to break apart. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that millions of school children across the country were tuned in and watching the launch. Thirty-two months would pass before the shuttle Discovery would take Americans back into space.

Discovery

Discovery on its way to Washington.
Discovery on its way to Washington.

Space Shuttle Discovery would be the third shuttle to enter service with its maiden flight on August 30, 1984. During its long twenty-seven year tenure, Discovery would go on to fly thirty-nine missions, the most by any of the shuttles. Discovery flew over 148 million miles during its service and placed thirty-one satellites into orbit. Discovery also made thirteen visits to the International Space Station. Probably its most notable mission was to place the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit on April 24th, 1990.

The Discovery's final resting place will be the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center and on April 19, 2012 the Discovery flew piggyback atop a modified 747 for its journey to Washington D.C.

Enterprise (L) and Discover (R) changing places at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center.
Enterprise (L) and Discover (R) changing places at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center. | Source

Atlantis

Atlantis launch plume
Atlantis launch plume | Source

The fourth shuttle to enter service was the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Atlantis made it first flight on October 3, 1985. Atlantis went on to fly a total of thirty-three missions, including twelve to the International Space Station. Atlantis traveled over 125 million miles during its service and deployed fourteen satellites. The final resting place of Atlantis will be the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center Complex in Florida.

Endeavor

Endeavor in orbit.  Just stunning.
Endeavor in orbit. Just stunning. | Source

The fifth and final shuttle built by Rockwell International, the prime contractor for the space shuttle, was the Space Shuttle Endeavor. The construction of Endeavor was authorized by Congress in 1987 to replace Challenger and flew its first mission on May 7, 1992. Endeavor went on to fly twenty-five missions, including twelve visits to the International Space Station.

In 1993 Endeavor made the first mission to the damaged Hubble Space Telescope to repair it. Interestingly, the name for the shuttle Endeavor was the result of a national contest among elementary and secondary schools to come up with an appropriate name for the spacecraft. A fitting tribute to Christa McAullife and the Challenger crew. Endeavor will spend its retirement years at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Endeavor on the last leg of its journey to the California Science Center
Endeavor on the last leg of its journey to the California Science Center | Source

Interesting Shuttle Facts

  • There were a total of 135 Space Shuttle missions.
  • The first flight of the Space Shuttle was on April 12, 1981 by shuttle Columbia, a two day mission orbiting the earth 37 times.
  • The last Space Shuttle flight ended on July 21, 2011, when Atlantis returned home from its trip to the orbiting International Space Station.
  • The last Shuttle flight was 42 years and 1 day after the Apollo 11 moon landing.
  • 34 of the 135 Shuttle missions were launched at night.
  • Enterprise was originally to be named Constitution but NASA changed the name after being deluged by Star Trek fans requesting the name be changed to Enterprise.
  • The original four flying Space Shuttles were all named after sailing ships; Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis.
  • Space Shuttle missions are referred to by the acronym STS which stands for Space Transportation System.
  • The NASA Space Shuttle fleet logged over 800,000,000 miles during it's thirty years of service.
  • The Space Shuttle contains over 2.5 million individual parts.
  • The Space Shuttles did not contain showers so astronauts took sponge baths while in space.
  • The Spaces Shuttles do have toilets but they operate using air flow rather than water flow which would not work in the zero-gravity environment of space.
  • The prime contractor for the Space Shuttle was Rockwell International and the final assembly of the Shuttles took place in Palmdale, California.

The Courageous Crew of Challenger

The crew of the Challenger, mission STS-51
The crew of the Challenger, mission STS-51 | Source

Honoring the Crew of Columbia

Crew of Columbia, STS-107
Crew of Columbia, STS-107 | Source

Location of Space Shuttles

show route and directions
A markerSmithsonian Udvar-hazy Center,Washington DC -
Washington, DC, USA
get directions

B markerKennedy Space Center, FL -
Kennedy Space Center, Orlando, FL 32899, USA
get directions

C markerCalifornia Science Center, Los Angles, CA -
California Science Center, 700 Exposition Park Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90037, USA
get directions

D markerB. Intrepid Sea & Air Museum, New York, NY -
Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, New York, NY 10036, USA
get directions

© 2012 Bill De Giulio

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    • pramodgokhale profile image

      pramodgokhale 11 months ago from Pune( India)

      Sir,

      i appreciate that you recall space missions and spin-offs of missions. Technologies and appropriate application made world to move fast. Predictions of storms, floods saved lives and property too.

      Hope in future new space machines will again dominate the scene and mankind will have new resources.

      this is a science , we should not look to it as specie on extinct

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 11 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      My pleasure Bill.

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 11 months ago from Massachusetts

      Thank you everyone. This hub is actually a few years old but my enthusiasm for NASA and the Space Program has never waned. I was sad to see the shuttle program end but hope to be around for a manned mission to Mars. Thank you Krisitin, I'll go through the hub now to fix.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 11 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great hub, Bill. Once again, you've landed a HOTD for your newest hubs. I remember hearing about the Challenger space shuttle explosion, when I was a little girl, two decades ago. A couple of nitpicks: it's should be its, and thirty-two, thirty-three and thirty-nine should be hyphenated. Well done!

    • Credence2 profile image

      Credence2 11 months ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      The space program was the one few shining lights in the existence of man. The desire to explore the 'final frontier'. We instead have decided to mire ourselves in the mud, what a waste.

      Great hub, thanks

    • Discordzrocks profile image

      Gavin Heinz 11 months ago from Austin TX

      Congrats on HOTD, very cool hub

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 11 months ago from New Delhi, India

      Congratulations for the HOTD--well deserved!

      Interesting and very informative hub with awesome photographs on the U.S. space program.

      I admire your initiative to share this wonderful and well researched hub with others.

      Thank you!

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      Pretty ironic isn't it? Looks like someday soon we'll all be able to get a ride in space.

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      How sad to have beat the Russians and now we're begging for rides. Sir Richard Branson might save us! He created Virgin Galactic and is offering rides to space for $250,000 a seat.

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi availiasvision. Yep, space station is still being used. We hitch a ride with the Russians to get there now. Maybe someday we'll have another re-usable space craft? Thanks for the visit.

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      "Enterprise was originally to be named Constitution but NASA changed the name after being deluged by Star Trek fans requesting the name be changed to Enterprise." That's seriously awesome. Best marketing ever!

      Now that we are no longer going to the space station, what is happening to it? Is it still in use?

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks pramodgokhale. It was an amazing vehicle that served NASA for many, many years. Thank you for reading and commenting. Have a great day

    • pramodgokhale profile image

      pramodgokhale 4 years ago from Pune( India)

      USA was numero-uno in the space, space shuttles were not the fictions but the facts and inspired many new technocrats across the globe.

      The success rate of space missions was almost cent percent.

      I like hub and photos.

      Thank you Sir.

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks for stopping by Lenzy. It's one of those things that has always been of interest to me. I actually worked for Rockwell International, the prime contractor on the Shuttle, back in the 1980s but never got to work on the Shuttle. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Lenzy profile image

      Lenzy 4 years ago from Arlington, Texas

      Interesting commentary and photos on the U.S. space program. Thank you for taking the time to inform us. Lenzy

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks MG Singh. Appreciate the visit and comments. Have a great day.

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 4 years ago from Singapore

      Good info and photographs

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