Image: At 11:29 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on July 8, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis lit its rockets and roared into space. Four astronauts made the climb toward orbit and the International Space Station (ISS). The 135th and last flight of the U.S. space transportation system, or STS, comes 30 years after the first flight in April 1981.
For 30 years, the space shuttle has been the U.S. human access to space. It has capabilities no other spacecraft can claim. No other spacecraft is likely to match those capabilities in this generation. It is the fastest winged vehicle ever to fly, with an orbital velocity of 17,500 mph, 10 times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet.
It is the only winged vehicle to reach orbit, and the only reusable space launch and landing vehicle. The shuttle can carry cargos of substantial weight and dimensions. It has taken into space more than half the mass of all payloads launched by all nations since Sputnik in 1957 – 3,450,143 pounds (though STS-132) and counting as the final shuttle launch approaches.
More singular still is the shuttle’s ability to return payloads from space. It has brought back from orbit more than 97 percent of all mass returned to Earth, a total of 225,574 pounds (though STS-132) before the upcoming final flight. It has launched 802 crew members including those lost on Challenger and Columbia. Crew members returning on the shuttle numbered 789. Many crew members flew more than once. A total of 356 different individuals have flown aboard the shuttle (all through STS-132). It leaves a significant legacy.
Engineering and technological advances were required in development of the shuttle. It was called the most complex machine ever built. Its main engines stretched design and metallurgical capabilities. Its thermal protection system, which shielded the orbiter from temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit during re-entry, was a work in progress until shortly before the first shuttle launch.
Engines and the thermal protection system were designed for repeated reuse. Both have been continually improved during the life of the Space Shuttle Program. So has just about every other major shuttle system. Science, in addition to the advances required for the spacecraft’s development, has made huge strides with the help of the space shuttle. We have learned more about ourselves, about how our bodies and those of other organisms function, from the subcellular level on up.
We have learned how we as individuals interact with one another under unusual and stressful circumstances – and how to work together. We have learned about our planet, its land masses, its oceans, its atmosphere and its environment as a whole. With the help of the shuttle we have learned more about our moon, solar system, our galaxy and our universe. The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, launched and repeatedly upgraded and repaired on shuttle missions, has given us unprecedented vision of distant stars, some with planets orbiting them. It has allowed us to look at objects so distant that viewing the light from them takes us back in time to nearer the beginning of the universe.
Scientific advances continue aboard the International Space Station. The shuttle has been instrumental in the station’s construction and operation. Perhaps as important as any element of the shuttle legacy is the development of international cooperation in space. Humans from many nations have begun to work together in space.
Shuttle visits to the Russian space station Mir were a beginning that led to that new cooperation we see today aboard the International Space Station. It has helped to develop respect and understanding for people and technological capabilities of many countries, including some former enemies. Such synergies could give humans as a whole greater potential for space exploration and development that any single nation could achieve alone. Such capabilities eventually could be critical in how well our species flourishes or, indeed, survives.
The shuttle has provided inspiration – for the young and the not so young. It has encouraged uncounted youths to focus on science and technology. The idea of becoming an astronaut, as some certainly will, is a powerful motivation.
So too is the prospect of using such an education to advance human knowledge and understanding in space. People of all the nations contributing to the space shuttle’s design and operation can take pride in its accomplishments.
ENTERPRISE: Now a Museum Piece Enterprise, the first space shuttle orbiter, was named after the spacecraft in the popular TV science fiction series Star Trek. Plans had called for it to be converted to an operational orbiter after ground and approach and landing tests, but it never flew in space.
Designated OV-101, Enterprise was delivered to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Airs Force Base on Jan. 31, 1977, for the nine-month test series. Tests included ground tests atop the shuttle carrier aircraft. They were followed by five captive flight tests of the unmanned Enterprise atop the carrier aircraft. Three more captive flights were flown with two-man crews aboard the orbiter to check Enterprise’s flight controls and other systems. In five subsequent free flights, two alternating astronaut crews separated the orbiter from the carrier aircraft and landed at Edwards. Four of the landings were on a dry lake bed, and the fifth was on the base’s main concrete runway. Four local ferry flight tests were followed by modifications for vertical ground vibration tests.
On March 13, 1978, Enterprise flew aboard the carrier aircraft to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., for those tests. On April 10, 1979, Enterprise was ferried to the Kennedy Space Center. Mated with an external tank and solid rocket boosters, it was moved on the mobile launcher platform to Launch Pad 39A. There, it served as a practice and launch complex fit-check tool.
By then, it had been decided that it would be too expensive to convert Enterprise to a spaceflight vehicle. It was taken back to Rockwell’s Palmdale final assembly facility. Some of its parts were refurbished for use on flight vehicles being assembled at Palmdale.
Though Enterprise never got to space, it did see Paris, for the air show there. It also visited Germany, Italy, England and Canada during that 1983 trip. It was in New Orleans for the 1984 World’s Fair. On Nov. 18, 1985, Enterprise was ferried to Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. There it became the property of the Smithsonian Institution.
The recent announcement of orbiter placement after the fleet is retired means Enterprise will be relocated from the Virginia suburbs to the Intrepid, Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City. That will clear the way for Discovery to take its place at the Smithsonian.
COLUMBIA: FIRST IN SPACE, FIRST IN SCIENCE On April 12, 1981, with a bright coat of new white paint and a gleaming white external tank, Columbia launched from Kennedy Space Center on STS-1, the first shuttle flight and the first of four test flights that took the nation back into space.
Each of those flights was flown with just a commander and a pilot, and each was flown by Columbia. The third of those flights was made with an unpainted external tank, a practice that saved about 600 pounds and continued through the rest of the program. More formally known as OV-102, Columbia also flew the first operational shuttle flight, STS-5, launched Nov. 11, 1982. That flight saw the first launch of a commercial communications satellite to be deployed by a shuttle.
Columbia was named after the first American ocean vessel to circle the globe, a name shared by the Apollo 11 command module for the first moon landing.
On STS-9, launched Nov. 28, 1983, it flew the first Spacelab mission. The pressurized cylinder in the cargo bay hosted around-the-clock experiments. Columbia also flew the laboratory on its last mission in 1998. In 1991, Columbia was the first orbiter to undergo the scheduled inspection and retrofit program. At Rockwell’s Palmdale, Calif., assembly plant it underwent about 50 upgrades, including the addition of carbon brakes and a drag chute, improved nose wheel steering and removal of instrumentation used during the test flights. It was back in action for STS-50, launched in June 1992. In 1994, Columbia was in Palmdale again for its first major tear-down and overhaul. It took about a year and left Columbia in some respects better than new. A second overhaul completed in 2001 involved more than 100 modifications, including “glass cockpit” instrumentation. Columbia deployed the Chandra X-ray Observatory, one of four NASA great observatories, during STS-93 on July 23, 1999. Many lessons learned from Columbia contributed to design of subsequent orbiters, which were somewhat lighter and more capable, and thus more suitable for space station assembly missions. Columbia became more focused on science flights.
It was on a long-planned science mission, STS-107 with a Spacehab research double module, that Columbia and its crew were lost on Feb. 1, 2003. A piece of external tank foam insulation had damaged a wing leading edge shortly after launch. Just 16 minutes away from the conclusion of what had been a successful mission, Columbia disintegrated over Texas.
CHALLENGER: Second Shuttle, Challenger Notched Firsts For a spacecraft initially not intended to fly, Challenger went a long way and chalked up some impressive firsts. Challenger was built as a test vehicle for the Space Shuttle Program. NASA’s quest for a lighter orbiter led to its construction. The idea was to see if the new design with its lighter airframe could handle the heat and stresses inherent in spaceflight. Challenger was named for HMS Challenger, a British research vessel which sailed the Atlantic and the Pacific during the 1870s. It was designated OV-99, reflecting in part its original designation as a test object.
In early 1979, NASA awarded orbiter manufacturer Rockwell a contract to convert what was then STA-099 to a space-rated orbiter. The vehicle’s conversion began late that year. That job was easier and less expensive than it would have been to convert NASA’s first orbiter, Enterprise, to fly in space. It was still a major process that involved a lot of disassembly and replacement of many parts. The new orbiter arrived at Kennedy Space Center in July 1982. Challenger was launched on its maiden voyage, STS-6, on April 4, 1983. That mission saw the first spacewalk of the Space Shuttle Program, as well as the deployment of the first satellite in the Tracking and Data Relay System constellation. The orbiter launched the first American woman, Sally Ride, into space June 18 on mission STS-7 and was the first to carry two U.S. female astronauts on mission 41-G, launched Oct. 5, 1984. The first orbiter to launch (Aug. 30, 1983) and land at night on mission STS-8, Challenger also made the first shuttle landing at Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 11, 1984, concluding mission 41-B. Spacelabs 2 and 3 flew on missions 51-B and 51-F (launched April 29 and July 29, 1985), as did the first German-dedicated Spacelab, launched on 61-A. A host of scientific experiments and satellite deployments were done during Challenger’s nine successful missions.
Challenger's service to America's space program ended in tragedy on Jan. 28, 1986. Just 73 seconds into mission 51-L, the 25th shuttle flight, a booster joint failure caused an explosion that resulted in the loss of Challenger and its seven-astronaut crew.
ATLANTIS: First Shuttle to MIR, Last to Hubble Atlantis, NASA’s fourth orbiter to fly in space, was named after the primary research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1966.
The two-masted sailing ship had a 17-member crew and accommodated as many as five scientists in two laboratories. It used the first electronic sounding devices to map the ocean floor.
Construction of Atlantis, OV-104, began on March 3, 1980. Thanks to lessons learned in construction and testing of previous orbiters, Atlantis was finished in about half the man-hours
spent on Columbia.
Large thermal protection blankets were used on its upper body, rather than individual tiles. At 151,315 pounds on rollout at Palmdale, Calif., Atlantis was nearly 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia. The new orbiter arrived at Kennedy Space Center on April 9, 1985, to prepare for its maiden voyage, 51-J (the 21st shuttle flight) launched Oct. 3, 1985.
After that classified Department of Defense mission, it flew three more dedicated DoD flights and carried a classified DoD payload on a later mission. Atlantis deployed a number of noteworthy spacecraft, including planetary probes Magellan and Galileo, as well as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. An array of science experiments took place during most missions to further enhance space research in low Earth orbit.
On STS-71, launched June 27, 1995, Atlantis flew the first Shuttle-Mir mission, as well as the subsequent six missions to dock with the Russian space station. During those docked operations Atlantis and Mir formed what was then the largest spacecraft to orbit the Earth. The missions to Mir included the first U.S. crew exchange.
On STS-79, the fourth docking mission, Atlantis ferried astronaut Shannon Lucid back to Earth after her record-setting 188 days in orbit aboard Mir. Atlantis has delivered a number of components to the International Space Station. Among them were the U.S. laboratory Destiny, the airlock Quest and several sections of the Integrated Truss structure that makes up the station’s backbone. It made the last servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, STS-125 launched May 11, 2009, and delivered the Russian Mini Research Module to the space station on STS-132 launched May 14, 2010. During overhauls, orbiter maintenance down periods, Atlantis received a number of upgrades and new features. They included a glass cockpit or multifunction electronic display system, new electrical connections and plumbing to give Atlantis the capability for extended-duration missions, improved nose wheel steering, a drag chute and many more.
After having completed its 33rd and final mission in the summer of 2011, Atlantis will retire down the road to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
DISCOVERY, a Stalwart of the Shuttle Fleet With 39 missions to its credit, Discovery has become the workhorse of the shuttle fleet. It was the Return to Flight orbiter after both the Challenger and Columbia accidents. It has visited the International Space Station a dozen times. It was the first orbiter to carry a Russian cosmonaut aboard and, a year later, the first to visit the Russian space station Mir. On that flight to Mir, STS-63 launched Feb. 3, 1995, was the first female shuttle pilot, Eileen Collins. (She would later become the first woman to command a shuttle on STS-93, launched on Columbia July 23, 1999.) Discovery deployed the Hubble Space Telescope on STS-31, launched April 24, 1990, and flew both the second and third Hubble servicing missions, STS-82 in February 1997 and STS-103 in December 1999. It was the third orbiter to join the fleet, arriving at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in November 1983. It launched on its first flight, 41-D (the 12th shuttle flight) Aug. 30, 1984, to deploy three communications satellites. STS-133 was its 39th and final flight.
It took to the station the Permanent Multi-Purpose Module, converted from the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module Leonardo. In addition to that storage and experiment area, Discovery also carried spare components and an ELC, which was mounted outside the station to hold large components for the station. It also brought Robonaut, a robot with a human-like upper torso, to the station. Earlier, on STS-124 launched May 31, 2008, it had brought the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the station.
On STS-119 launched March 15, 2009, it brought the final piece of the station’s backbone main truss into orbit. Discovery, OV-103, traces its name to two sailing vessels. One was the ship used in the early 1600s by Henry Hudson to explore Hudson Bay and search for a northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The other was used by British explorer James Cook on his voyage in the Pacific, leading to the European discovery of the Hawaiian Islands in 1778.
Discovery benefited from lessons learned in the construction and testing of Enterprise, Columbia and Challenger. At rollout, its weight was some 6,870 pounds less than Columbia, which made it more suited for taking heavy components and equipment to the space station. Discovery underwent modifications over the years. In 1999, it began a nine-month extensive maintenance period at Palmdale, Calif. Beginning in 2002, it began major modifications at Kennedy Space Center – including upgrades and safety modifications.
After 39 missions, Discovery has been retired and will be displayed in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport in the Virginia suburbs.
ENDEAVOUR: Spare Parts Help Push Orbiter Design A spacecraft that was partly a collection of spare parts, Endeavour also featured advanced new hardware that helped improve safety and performance of other orbiters when it was later incorporated into them.
Endeavour was authorized by Congress in August 1987 as a replacement for Challenger, lost in a Jan. 28, 1986, accident just after launch. Structural assembly of Endeavour’s crew compartment had begun more than five years before the contract to build NASA’s newest orbiter was awarded. Spare parts made during the construction of Discovery and Atlantis, to be used in repairs if they became necessary, eventually were used in Endeavour. The new spacecraft came together pretty well. Endeavour, OV-105, was named through a national competition of elementary and secondary school students.
The name chosen was from a ship of Capt. James Cook used in a 1768 voyage to the South Pacific to observe a transit of Venus at Tahiti. That provided a more accurate knowledge of the distance between the sun and Earth.
Other advances, ranging from the discovery of new plant and animal species to the accurate charting of New Zealand, also resulted. The new shuttle’s first mission was STS-49, launched May 7, 1992.
A highlight was capture and repair of the Intelsat VI communications satellite whose booster rocket had failed. It took three spacewalks, one involving three astronauts, but the satellite eventually was caught, fitted with a new booster rocket and successfully redeployed. A then-record fourth spacewalk was done to evaluate space station assembly methods. Endeavour flew a number of high-profile missions.
Highlights included STS-61, the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, launched Dec. 2, 1993; the first space station assembly mission, STS-88 launched Dec. 4, 1998; and installation of the P6 truss with the first set of U.S. solar arrays on STS-97, launched Nov. 30, 2000.
The first Japanese component of the space station was taken by Endeavour to the station in March 2008 and the orbiter brought the final piece of the Japanese segment to the station in July 2009. It also delivered Node 3, Tranquility, and the Cupola, the robotic workstation, to the station in February 2010, completing its U.S. segment.
On STS-99, launched Feb. 11, 2000, Endeavour flew the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. The around-the-clock work by the orbiter and crew resulted in remarkably accurate topographical maps of most of the Earth’s surface.
Endeavour underwent extensive modifications, including the addition of all of the Return to Flight safety upgrades added to both Discovery and Atlantis after the Columbia accident. Endeavour’s STS-118 launch on Aug. 8, 2007, was first in four years after a lengthy modernization.
Endeavour will be displayed at the California Science Center, Los Angeles – not too far from the assembly plant where all shuttles were built.
The 4 existing shuttles will be moved to museums for visitors to be reminded of the 30 year shuttle era.
Enterprise will find its museum home at the Intrepid, Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City.
Atlantis will retire in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex near Orlando, Florida.
The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia will become the permanent home of the shuttle Discovery.
Endeavour can be seen at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.