Challenger is mated with the NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft for initial delivery to the Kennedy Space Center. All of the shuttles were assembled at Rockwell International (later The Boeing Co.) facilities at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif. Except for the final shuttle built, Endeavour, the orbiters were then transported overland by truck to Dryden for mating with the 747 for delivery to Florida. (NASA Photo) › View Larger Image
Challenger was built to serve as a structural test article for the shuttle program. A lighter-weight orbiter was NASA's goal during the years in which the orbiter fleet was being built, but a test article was needed to ensure that a lighter airframe could handle the stress of space flight. Computer software of the era wasn't able to accurately predict how the orbiters' new, optimized design would respond to intense heat and stress. The design underwent a year of intensive vibration and thermal testing.
NASA awarded shuttle manufacturer Rockwell International (now The Boeing Co.) a contract in 1979 to convert STA-099 to a space-rated orbiter, later named Challenger. Conversion began late that year. Although STA-099 would be more easily converted than would the shuttle prototype Enterprise, such major modifications involved disassembly and replacement of many parts and components.
Challenger, the second in NASA's orbiter fleet, arrived at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on July 1982. Challenger made seven landings at Edwards, the last at the conclusion of STS-61A on Nov. 6, 1985.
The shuttle was named after the British naval research vessel HMS Challenger that sailed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during the 1870s. The Apollo 17 lunar module also was called Challenger. Like their predecessors, Challenger and its crews made significant scientific contributions.
Challenger's first mission was STS-6, launched April 4, 1983. That mission included the first spacewalk of the shuttle program, as well as deployment of the first satellite in the Tracking and Data Relay System constellation. The orbiter's crew included Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut, on mission STS-7. Challenger also was the first shuttle to host a crew that included two U.S. women astronauts, on mission STS-41G.
The first orbiter to launch and land at night, on mission STS-8, Challenger also made the first shuttle landing at Kennedy, concluding mission STS-41B. Spacelabs 2 and 3 flew aboard Challenger on missions STS- 51F and STS-51B, as did the first German-dedicated Spacelab, on STS-6A. Challenger's missions included a host of scientific experiments and satellite deployments.
Challenger and its crew of seven astronauts on STS-51L were lost on Jan. 28, 1986. Please see the special salute to the vehicle and its crew elsewhere in this publication. Challenger and its crew live on as part of NASA's space shuttle legacy. The discoveries made on the shuttle's many missions continue to improve mankind's knowledge of space flight and its applications to life on Earth.