Space Shuttle


The cost of sending individual space missions was becoming unacceptable. In an effort to reduce the budget and offer a vehicle that could be reused, NASA developed the idea of the space shuttle.

This vehicle could piggy-back on a standard rocket designed to bring it to the edges of the atmosphere where the shuttle could take off, accomplish its payload mission, and then return and land at one of two Earth bases. Each shuttle could carry the required astronauts as well as technology and tools needed.

Besides being the major contributing reason for the success of construction of the International Space Station, the space shuttles accomplished untold numbers of scientific experiments using the specially designed “Spacelab.”


The experiments that were conducted brought a wealth of information about space, gravity, and data about biological and environmental topics to learn more about ourselves, our Earth, and living in space.

The era of the space shuttles covered between April 12, 1981 and July 21, 2011. In this time, the entire fleet of space shuttles included 135 missions by Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. They accomplished incredible feats, including assisting in the construction of the first International Space Station.

The thirty years that the space shuttles were performing saw many records set, carrying people into orbit, repairing satellites, and accomplishing cutting-edge research. The shuttles were the first reusable spacecraft and had set an example for some of the spacecraft being designed and used today by such organizations as SpaceX.

As humanity’s first reusable spacecraft, the space shuttle pushed the bounds of discovery ever farther, requiring not only advanced technologies but the tremendous effort of a vast workforce.

Thousands of civil servants and contractors throughout NASA’s field centers and across the nation have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to mission success and the greater goal of space exploration.

NASA’s space shuttles have traveled 542,398,878, making 21,152 Earth orbits.


The original name of the space shuttle program was officially called STS (Space Transportation System), and the first flight began when the Columbia left the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. The vehicle was designed to act as a spacecraft and then when it re-entered the atmosphere instead of using the parachutes for landing like previous missions, it would glide back to Earth and land on a runway either in California or Florida.

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The space shuttles had a 60-foot-long payload bay as well as a robotic arm that could be used to carry satellites into low Earth orbit in a single flight, service them, and return them back for functional use. The fleet of shuttles was created to achieve orbits from 115-400 miles high as well as accomplish unique experiments in the full onboard laboratories.

Each space shuttle is named after influential ships of exploration and science and all were built by Rockwell International in Palmdale, California.


Shuttle Passengers:

There have been 355 individual fliers that have flown on the space shuttles and 852 total shuttle fliers. The individuals that have been carried onboard the space shuttles represent 16 different countries. 306 men and 49 women have flown on the shuttles. The only astronaut to have flown on all of the five shuttles is Story Musgrave.

List of Space Shuttles:

Atlantis: Atlantis, OV-104 was named after a research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts that functioned from 1930-1966, Atlantis is the fourth of the space shuttles, with its first flight on October 3, 1985.

Some of the many missions included sending probes to Jupiter and Venus, carrying NASA’s Destiny laboratory to the ISS (International Space Station), and serving as the final shuttle servicing mission (STS-125) for the Hubble Space Telescope. Its final mission was the STS-125 and it is now at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for its permanent home for public viewing.


Endeavour: Endeavour, OV-105 was named by students in elementary and secondary schools across the country. They chose to name it after a ship that had been chartered to travel in 1768 in the South Pacific. Endeavour was ordered to replace Challenger, and was the last space shuttle built.

During its first mission in 1992 (STS-49), Challenger carried three astronauts and they spacewalked to make an unprecedented effort in grabbing a satellite in orbit with their gloved hands and pulling it into the cargo bay of Endeavour for repair.

They then re-launched the satellite from Endeavour. The space shuttle was also critical in the first repair to the Hubble Space Telescope so that the astronauts could install new contact lenses to correct the telescopes sight. Endeavour had its 25th mission (STS-134) in which it delivered the AMS (Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2) to the ISS in May/June, 2011, after which it became the second shuttle to retire.

Endeavour was moved to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, for permanent public display.

Discovery: Discovery, OV-103, was named after one of the two ships used by Captain James Cook, a British explorer, in the 1770s, when he explored Alaska and northwestern Canada and discovered Hawaii.

Discovery was the third space shuttle, making its first flight in August, 1984 (STS-41D). Discovery accomplished over 39 missions, more than any other space shuttle.

In the years of operation Discovery accommodated both Return to Flight missions after the Columbia and Challenger accidents and deployed the NASA Hubble Space Telescope. It was the first space shuttle to be retired and it was moved for public display to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

Challenger: Challenger, OV-099, was named after the HMS Challenger, a British Naval research vessel that sailed during the 1870s in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It was the second shuttle that was operational and made its first flight on April 4, 1983 (STS-6).

Challenger had many missions that took astronauts for the first spacewalks where they used jetpacks, and pulled a satellite out of orbit and fixed it and then returned it to service. On Jan.

28, 1986, Challenger and all seven of the astronauts that it was carrying were lost due to failure of one of the boosters seals caused hot gas to burn through an external tank and ignite the propellants. The shuttle broke up in the explosion. That was Challenger flight STS-51L, and its 10th mission.

Columbia: Columbia, OV-102, named after a sloop captain who maneuvered his ship on May 11, 1792, through dangerous inland waters to explore what was then British Columbia, but now the states of Oregon and Washington. Columbia was the first shuttle to take orbit (STS-1) and its first four were test flights to make sure that the design and functionality of the shuttle was sound.

Astronauts put the shuttle through all types of phases of evaluation, including operating the robotic arm. Columbia was crucial in the deployment of many satellites and was on several missions as a laboratory in space. It was the only shuttle to ever land at White Sands Space Harbor in Las Cruces, N.M. On February 1, 2003, Columbia and all seven of the astronauts on board were lost when it broke apart during re-entry. It was its 28th mission, (STS-107).

Enterprise: While the original name of this shuttle was supposed to be “Constitution,” fans of the Star Trek series started a big write-in campaign requesting that the name the ship after the lead character, Captain James T. Kirk. They instead, chose the name “Enterprise” after the famed spaceship of the television series.

Enterprise was the very first space shuttle to be built, however, it never flew in space. It was used for the purposes of testing priority landing phases as well as other shuttle preparations. Enterprise was mounted on top of a modified 747 airliner for the 1977 Approach and Landing Tests. It was released to prove that it could safely glide and land over a huge dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Shuttle profiles

Interesting Information:

  • During an orbit, the space shuttles traveled around the globe at 17,500 mph/28,000 kph. The crew of the space shuttle could watch a subset or sunrise every 45 minutes.
  • If you add all of the miles of all five of the space shuttles you would get a total of 513.7 million miles/826.7 million km. This is 1.3 times the distance between Jupiter and the Earth. With the exception of Challenger, all shuttles traveled farther than the distance between the sun and the Earth.
  • Only one U.S. President was onsite to watch a space shuttle launch. President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Clinton watched Mercury mission and astronaut John Glenn return to space on October 29, 1998 on the STS-95 flight from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. President Obama had planned to watch Endeavor on its final STS-134 mission on April 29, 2011, however, the launch was delayed. The President and his family visited the spaceport anyway.
  • The space shuttles were also laboratories and accomplished 22 Spacelab missions. These were missions involving science, physics, and astronomy as they were studied inside of the special space shuttle module. Spacelab was a reusable laboratory constructed specifically for space shuttle flights and let scientists perform experiments in microgravity.  Beginning with the 1983’s missions with Challenger, animals were a major part of space science. The STS-7 mission, they monitored the social activities of ant colonies in zero gravity, and on the STS-8 mission, six rats were flown and studied in the Animal Enclosure module to check on their behavior in space.
  • The tiles that covered the outside of the space shuttle were the Thermal Protection System or “heat shield.” The over 30,000 tiles were basically made of sand and protected the exterior from the intense heat when the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere of the Earth. Before liftoff, each and every tile was completely inspected. The quality of the tiles included the fact that even after they were heated to intense temperatures, they cooled off so fast that you could place your hand on them only a minute later.
  • The heaviest of the space shuttles was the Columbia who weighed in at 178,000 lbs/80,700 kg. This is around the weight of about thirteen elephants. The reason that Columbia weighed so much was that NASA was still researching for materials that were lighter. They did find materials and placed them in future shuttles.
  • “STS” is the official name of the space shuttle program and stands for “Space Transportation System.” Each shuttle mission always has the prefix of “STS.” The first missions were always given a number based on the sequence it was in for its flight. However, this was changed due to the then-NASA administrator’s fear of the number “13,” so they created a different numbering system for the shuttle missions. They decided to have the “STS,” followed by the last digit of the fiscal year, with the second number indicating the launch site (1 for Kennedy Space Center and 6 for Vandenberg Air Force Base). The letter indicated the sequence, so A would have been the first launch of the year, etc.  After the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986, NASA returned to the sequential numbering system and began with STS-26.
  • Astronaut Michael J. Massimino was a crew member on the Atlantis STS-125 shuttle mission and became the first person to use the microblogging site (Twitter in space) on May 11, 2009. He was @Astro_Mike and tweeted: “From orbit: Launch was awesome!! I am feeling great, working hard, & enjoying the magnificent views, the adventure of a lifetime has begun!” Since that time, many of the NASA astronauts as well as other space agencies have used the space Twitter access. Doug Wheelock, a NASA Spaceflyer, actually won a Twitter Shorty Award for the photos and posts that he shared from space during his months-long time at the ISS.
  • For the final space shuttle mission, all four of the crewmembers of Atlantic have Twitter ID’s:
  • commander Chris Ferguson (@Astro_Ferg), pilot Doug Hurley (@Astro_Doug), mission specialist Sandy Magnus (@Astro_Sandy) and mission specialist Rex Walheim (@Astro_Rex).
  • The final Atlantis mission, STS-135, flew a 12-day mission for the delivery of vital spare parts and supplies to the ISS.