The Shuttle era is coming to an end this year thirty years after the launch of Columbia.  While it can boast many successes and certainly caught the imagination of the public this project also had some disasters and many critics.

Image of Final Shuttle PatchThe 30 year Shuttle programme will be commemorated with this Mission Patch which won first prize in a competition organized by NASA. (Image credit: NASA)

The Shuttle seed was sown in the 1930’s when Eugen Sanger explored the notion of a recyclable rocket plane that could carry a crew of people into space, the concept was later reworked into a bomber during the Second World War. It would be several decades before the notion of a space transportation system that could be reused was revisited. In the 1970’s NASA set about bringing Sangers’ ideas to fruition. There were proposals and designs drawn up for fully reusable systems but they were deemed too costly so a partially reusable system was finally decided upon.

The  Space Shuttle, which has to be manned, consists of three main parts, the reusable Orbiter Vehicle (OV) which looks somewhat like an aeroplane, two reusable Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) and an expendable External Tank (ET). The tank and boosters are jettisoned during ascent, so only the orbiter (as the name suggests) goes into orbit. The rocket boosters are retrieved for future use. On return to Earth the orbiter glides to a horizontal landing much like a plane but does have the help of a giant parachute (known as a drag chute; this was a modification first introduced to the shuttle Endeavour) at its tail to help slow it down.  It goes through rigorous maintenance and at times upgrades in equipment and is then ready for use again.

In total six shuttles were built, a test model called  Enterprise, named after the starship Enterprise and five others, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour which were all named after famous exploring ships, more details of which are available on this video clip

Image of STS 1 patch

The mission patch for the very first Shuttle flight. (Image credit: NASA)

Columbia was the first shuttle to be launched on April 12, 1981—the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin‘s space flight—with a crew of two, commander John Young, the Apollo veteran who was the ninth person to walk on the Moon in 1972 and pilot Robert Crippen.

Space Shuttle Columbia had a long and distinguished history flying 28 missions in total but it never went to the International Space Station.  Because it was the first working shuttle it was not as efficient as the later models and was much heavier than the others which all benefited from advances in materials technology. Columbia‘s first missions were test flights. Many improvements and modifications were carried out on Columbia and data collected was used to improve the later shuttles.

Columbia was the first shuttle commanded by a woman, Lt. Col. Eileen Collins who was commander of STS-93, launched in July 1999. There is an Irish connection here as Collins’s parents were immigrants from County Cork, Ireland. STS -93 deployed the Chandra X-Ray Observatory a very sophisticated piece of equipment which collects data from remnants of exploded stars.

After twenty two years, on 1 February 2003, Columbia came to a sad ending when it exploded on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere killing all seven crew on board.  It was never replaced.

Image of Sally Ride

Challenger carried the first American woman, Sally Ride, into space twenty years after Valentina Tereshkova who was actually the first female to leave the planet. (Image credit: NASA)

Challenger was the second of the Shuttle fleet to head for space. It was launched on its maiden flight, STS – 6, on 4 April 1983. This was an historic mission for many reasons. The first space walk of the shuttle programme which lasted around four and a quarter hours took place and it brought the first satellite in the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) into orbit. These satellites which operate in a geosynchronous orbit enable two way communication between spacecraft and ground control. The TDRS system is to space navigation what air traffic control is to your flight on Earth.

In June 1983 Challenger also took the first American woman, Sally Ride, into space. After nine successful missions Challenger came to a tragic end when it exploded during take off on January 28, 1986, with the loss of all seven astronauts on board.

This montage features all 39 mission patches of the longest serving shuttle orbiter, Discovery, (1984-2011). (Image credit NASA)

First flown on August 30, 1984, Discovery has performed some high profile missions. It launched the Hubble Space Telescope which transformed our view of the universe and is still sending us some amazing images of deep space objects.  It also launched the Ulysses probe and three TDRS satellites. Discovery carried Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn, who was 77 at the time, back into space during STS-95 on October 29, 1998. It was Discovery that took the plunge back into space, in 1988, following the 1986 Challenger tragedy and in July 2005 following the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster.

Discovery’s final mission was to the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this year. STS-133 was an 11 day mission which carried important spare parts to the orbiting space laboratory plus the converted multi-purpose logistics module Leonardo ( basically a cupboard/ storage, but not an IKEA model).  Leonardo was a regular visitor to the ISS, as a cargo container but this time was left behind to provide extra storage.

Discovery also carried some Lego, not for the astronauts’ playtime but to mark the beginning of a partnership between NASA and LEGO, which you can find out more about by clicking on I do wonder about Lego in zero gravity! Discovery also left a new permanent resident on board the space station, the human like Robonaut 2.  Maybe Robonaut 2 is now making Lego models.

Image of the Alpha-Magnetic-Spectrometer

Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer installed on the ISS. (Image credit: NASA)

Endeavour replaced Challenger and is the baby of the fleet. It was built using spare parts originally intended for the other orbiters so it could be considered the “old banger” of the fleet.  It was first launched in May 1992. Endeavour blasted off from the KSC on its final mission on 16 May 2011.The commander was Mark Kelly and his wife Gabrielle Giffords (recovering from a horrific assassination attempt) was there to see him off. During the mission, Endeavour delivered the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), pictured above, and some spare parts to the (ISS). The AMS will be mounted on the space station and will scan the heavens for antimatter, dark matter, and other strange cosmic phenomenon. This revolutionary piece of scientific kit will collect data from its perch on the ISS and could answer fundamental questions on our knowledge of the origin and structure of the universe.

The final countdown. The crew of STS-135, astronauts Chris Ferguson (center right), commander; Doug Hurley (center left), pilot; Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus, both mission specialists (Image credit: NASA)

Atlantis has had a very respectable career. Its first mission in October 1985 was to carry a secret payload into space for the U.S. Department of Defence. It carried out several more missions for the DOD. In 1989 Atlantis catapulted the Magellan Spacecraft on its way to Venus, where it mapped 98 percent of the planet from orbit. The same year it deployed the Galileo probe to Jupiter where it collected data on the planet and its moons for eight years. In April 1991 Atlantis launched the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (not as well known as its older brother, Hubble). Atlantis rendevouzed with the Soviet Mir space station as well as the ISS and has been on standby as the rescue orbiter for many missions.

At the moment Atlantis is being prepared for its final mission and the final flight of the shuttle programme.  STS-135 which will carry supplies and spare parts to the ISS and bring back a broken ammonia pump module, which NASA will scrutinise so as to improve the pump design, has a target launch date of 8 July 2011.

Though the Space Shuttle programme will soon come to an end its legacy will live on in the work of the satellites it has launched into orbit around our planet and beyond into outer space.

Having been inspected for faults and any data that could be of use in future space travel developments the Shuttles will have their engines removed before they are sent to their final resting place. They will however have dummy engines fitted and will look just as good as they did in their heyday.

To find out where the shuttles will be on display see this video.

Image of Mary Bulman

Mary Bulman, Education Support Officer

(Article by Mary Bulman)

1 Comment

US Rockets, past, present and future | Astronotes · October 15, 2013 at 02:53

[…] the larger end we find the most familiar vehicles in the shapes of the Shuttle (NASA’s recently retired Space Transportation System) and Saturn 5 (still the most capable US launch vehicle to actually fly). To their right are three […]

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