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History of NASA's Orbiters
July 16, 2013
History of NASA's Orbiters

Space Shuttle Orbiter in space
Figure: Space Shuttle Atlantis while in orbit.

The orbiter was the heart and brains of the Space Shuttle and served as the crew transport vehicle that carried astronauts to and from space. NASA retired its three operational orbiters at the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011 (Atlantis, Discovery, Endeavour). NASA also had two orbiters no longer in service (Challenger and Columbia) and one orbiter that was used as a test article (Enterprise). America's fleet of Space Shuttle orbiters were named after pioneering sea vessels which established new frontiers in research and exploration. NASA searched through the history books to find ships which achieved historical significance through discoveries about the world's oceans or the Earth itself. Another important criterion in the selection process was consideration for the international nature of the Space Shuttle program. The name of NASA's youngest orbiter, Endeavour was selected from names submitted by school children around the world.

Columbia was the first Space Shuttle orbiter to be delivered to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., in March 1979. Columbia and the STS-107 crew were lost Feb. 1, 2003, during re-entry. The Orbiter Challenger was delivered to KSC in July 1982 and was destroyed in an explosion during ascent in January 1986. Discovery was delivered in November 1983. Atlantis was delivered in April 1985. Endeavour was built as a replacement following the Challenger accident and was delivered to Florida in May 1991. An early Space Shuttle Orbiter, the Enterprise, never flew in space but was used for approach and landing tests at the Dryden Flight Research Center and several launch pad studies in the late 1970s.

Enterprise is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, but will be relocated in 2012 to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York. Discovery, which completed its final mission in March 2011, will replace Enterprise at the National Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. Endeavour completed its final mission in June 2011 and will reside at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on July 21, 2011, which marked the conclusion to the 30-year Space Shuttle Program. Atlantis will remain on permanent display at KSC’s Visitor Complex in Florida.

For more information on the Space Shuttle Orbiters, click here.

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Page Last Updated: November 25th, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator