Shuttle Ushered in New Space Exploration
Space shuttle Columbia on STS-1.

Columbia lifted off the launch pad for the first shuttle misison on April 12, 1981. Note the white external tank. NASA used a white tank only twice before scrapping the paint because it added so much weight. Image credit: NASA
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Space shuttle Atlantis at ISS.

The space shuttle fleet made it possible to build the International Space Station. The versatile shuttle has been used to add new pieces to the station, resupply the laboratory and change whole crews of station residents. Image credit: NASA
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John Young and Robert Crippen rode the first space shuttle, Columbia, into orbit on April 12, 1981, a few months before IBM introduced its first home computer.

It was the same year that MTV debuted, and the year the first Indiana Jones movie, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," premiered. Columbia flew months before Sandra Day O’Connor was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to become the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. The American population, now about 300 million, numbered about 229 million when Columbia launched.

Since then, the shuttle fleet has become a picture of versatility and stunning longevity colored in by dazzling success during 27 years of service to America’s space agency.

From performing experiments in state-of-the-art laboratories inside a shuttle cargo bay, to erecting a new constellation of communications satellites and building the largest space station the world has seen, the space shuttle quickly became the starting point for almost everything NASA wanted to do.

The spacecraft carried the renowned names of previous exploration ships: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour.

The shuttle is significantly larger than the capsule-sized spacecraft NASA cut its teeth on. One shuttle flight routinely carries seven astronauts into orbit at once, the size of NASA’s whole class of original Mercury astronauts. Challenger set the single-flight record in 1985 when it carried eight astronauts into space for a Spacelab mission.

The spacecraft are instantly distinguished from every other crewed spacecraft because of their wings. Until the space shuttle, astronauts – and Russian cosmonauts – only returned to Earth under billowing parachutes. Shuttles introduced precise landings on a runway, just like an airplane.

With a payload bay 60 feet long, a single shuttle can carry an Apollo, Gemini and Mercury capsule with plenty of room to spare.

The space shuttles fill numerous roles, sometimes during a single mission.

Screaming off the launch pad and reaching Mach 25 in eight minutes, the shuttle acts like a precision sports car. In orbit, the shuttle takes on a delivery truck’s role by deploying communications satellites and planetary probes.

As the American pop culture and political scenes changed around them, the space shuttles went about their designed work. Columbia lofted its first communications satellites into orbit in November 1982. Discovery launched three on one flight in 1984, and the crew still had enough equipment on board to practice space station construction techniques in the cargo bay.

In November 1983, Columbia became a space laboratory for astronauts who were chosen for their research capacity and history rather than their pilot skills.

Challenger proved in April 1984 that space shuttles made terrific service stations for orbiting satellites. A crew of five astronauts used the shuttle and a jetpack to capture the malfunctioning Solar Maximum research satellite. Spacewalkers replaced faulty components and then returned the satellite to its sun studying mission.

That experience and expertise was called on numerous times during the space shuttle’s history, including spectacular work performed on NASA’s crown jewel, the Hubble Space Telescope.

Discovery launched the observatory in April 1990. The Hubble Space Telescope, perched high above the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere, would go on to rewrite nearly everything astronomers thought about the universe. Hubble has required helping hands from several shuttle crews along the way. The upcoming mission by Atlantis, STS-125, is to be the last to the orbiting observatory.

Shuttles placed the Chandra X-ray Observatory and Compton Gamma Ray Observatory into orbit where they pioneered studies on the dynamics and history of the universe.

The Magellan probe to Venus and Galileo probe to Jupiter both began their successful missions inside a shuttle cargo bay.

Since 1998, the shuttles became the premier work site above the world as they took part in the groundbreaking construction of the International Space Station. Unlike any other spacecraft, the shuttle even brings its own cherry picker in the form of the robotic arm that NASA calls the remote manipulator system.

The success NASA enjoyed with its shuttles carried a price, though. Challenger and Columbia experienced accidents in flight in 1986 and 2003, respectively, that cost 14 astronauts their lives and sent the agency into a careful examination of itself. Each time, the shuttle fleets returned to space and to their exploration work.

NASA’s currency throughout its fifty years has been progress, and in the 1970s, when the space shuttles were developed and built, progress meant reusable spacecraft designed for a multitude of orbital duties.

Twenty-seven years ago Columbia ignited its engines for the first space shuttle mission; since then NASA has spent more than half of its lifetime flying shuttles and routinely marking progress along the way.

Steven Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center