Sending rockets into space has always been incredibly expensive as well as wasteful.
The United States looked to NASA to design a reusable space exploration program and that’s when they designed the Space Shuttle program.
The goal was instead of sending the shuttle off with a hugely expensive rocket that used a lot of fuel, ejected a lot of parts into space and then have a craft land back to earth, they would instead create a shuttle.
The shuttle would piggy back on a low earth orbit jet, then use fuel to get into space and accomplish its mission, followed by acting as a glider for re-entry and landing back to Earth.
The Space Shuttle Program was officially called STS (Space Transportation System) and was carried out from 1981 through 2011.
The shuttle consisted of an orbiter launched with two solid rocket boosters that were reusable and a disposable external tank that could carry up to 8 astronauts.
While launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, it would re-enter and land at either Edwards Air Force Base or back in Florida.
The idea of a space shuttle had been considered as far back as 1969.
A that time NASA was given a Space Task Group to work on concepts such as a permanent space station, reusable vehicles, and future missions to Mars.
Although the administration in Washington, D.C. wouldn’t commit to a Mars mission, in 1972 they did agree to the development of a space shuttle system that could achieve as many as fifty missions each year.
The first orbiter was supposed to be name “Constitution,” however, fans of the Star Trek television series had a massive write-in campaign to ask that it be called “Enterprise.”
On September 17, 1976 “Enterprise” (designate OV-101) was rolled out. Testing showed design validation of the shuttle and the program was officially born.
The Enterprise was launched using a specially modified Boeing 747 and had its first test in 1977 for ALT (initial atmospheric landing tests).
Five years later, the first space-worthy shuttle, Columbia, was launched in 1981. The last shuttle, Atlantis, retired after 2011 and the shuttle program officially ended.
During the space shuttle program, they sent many astronauts into space and it was the only winged manned spacecraft to ever achieve both orbit and landing, as well as the only reusable manned space vehicle used for multiple orbit flights.
The various missions included everything from carrying large payloads to a number of locations, including the ISS (International Space Station), providing crew rotation for the space station, and even performing service missions for repair.
The orbiters recovered satellites to bring back to Earth and was projected to last for around 10 years of operational time or 100 launches.
One of the most important missions was sending astronauts to the Hubble Space Telescope in the 1990 Discovery space shuttle.
The telescope’s mirror had an error that didn’t allow clear pictures. The astronauts arrived at the telescope to fix the problem by giving it “eye glasses.”
In addition to Enterprise, the names of the shuttles include:
Although there were over 135 missions flown, two of the orbiters, Challenger and Columbia, experienced accidents that caused the loss of all 14 astronaut crew members.
These accidents led to a temporary halt to the program while NASA investigated and examined what went wrong.
One of the areas of concern had always involved the protective tiles on the outside of the shuttle.
These tiles were designed to allow the shuttle to get through the extreme heat of reentry but they could also fall off.
With the addition of many countries entering space exploration and the new interest from private companies, the cost of the shuttle program became too much.
NASA began to look into alternatives including the use of Russia’s rocket program to take U.S. astronauts to the space station and the new SpaceX reusable Dragon spacecraft.
Other countries are continuing to develop their space programs and this has encouraged shared missions. NASA is building a Space Launch System as well as the Orion spacecraft.