The Fascinating History of the U.S. Space Shuttle Program

President Nixon announced the Space Shuttle Program in 1972 as the Apollo Program was coming to an end. The first Space Shuttle was launched on April 12, 1981 and included many firsts in space flight history. Now that the Space Shuttle program has come to an end, the United States will move in a different direction of space travel. The Space Shuttle has seen the building of the International Space Station, the Hubble telescope and hundreds of projects in space. During these past 30 years, there have been great achievements along with tragic accidents.

The End of the Space Shuttle Program

The Space Shuttle made its final flight on July 31, 2011. After three decades and 135 missions, the Space Shuttle program has come to an end.

The actual name of the space shuttle is the Space Transportation System, which is why each mission has the title of STS-mission number [1].

There have been six space shuttles, counting the first prototype that was never launched, Enterprise. Of the five shuttles’ that have been launched, two have been destroyed in accidents, Challenger and Columbia killing 14 astronauts. Three space shuttles are in service today, Endeavor, Atlantis and Discovery.

How the US Space Shuttle Program Started

During the late 1960s, NASA was already studying what the next space vehicle after the Apollo Program would be. The idea of a space vehicle that could be reused was thought to the best way to go and the space shuttle idea was born. On January 5, 1972, President Nixon announced that NASA would proceed with the development of the Space Shuttle program [2].

From Prototype to First Mission

Throughout the 1970s, development and building of the space shuttle Enterprise continued until it was ready to be tested in 1976. The Enterprise was attached to a modified 747 to test the various components of the shuttle. The last five of these tests, the Enterprise was released from the 747 where astronauts tested the gliding and landing capabilities of the new shuttle, landing at Edwards AFB in California [2].

Pesident Nixon and the Space Shuttle

STS-1: The First Space Shuttle Mission

The first shuttle to actually lift off and orbit the Earth was Shuttle Columbia. Shuttle Columbia launched from the Kennedy Space Center on April 12, 1981 with two astronauts, Commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen. It seems like almost yesterday I watched that first lift off. This first flight lasted for two days with Columbia landing at Edwards AFB on April 14, 1981.

The US Space Shuttle Firsts

The Space Shuttle Program had many firsts in US space flight history, including:

  • The first American woman in space was astronaut Sally Ride aboard STS-7 in 1983.
  • Astronaut Guion “Guy” Bluford became the first African-American to fly in space on STS-8 in 1983.
  • The first African-American female to fly in space was Dr. Mae Jemison, who flew on STS-47 in 1992.
  • The first un-tethered space walk in 1984 aboard STS-41B
  • The first American woman to walk in space was astronaut Kathryn Sullivan on STS-41G in 1984.
  • The first US politician to fly on the space shuttle was Senator Jake Garn of Utah on STS-51D in 1985. In 1998, former astronaut and former US Senator John Glenn was aboard STS-95 and became the oldest American in space at age 77.
  • The first Hispanic male to fly in space was Franklin Chang-Diaz aboard STS-61C in 1986 and the first Hispanic female to fly into space was Ellen Ochoa in 1993 on STS-56.
  • The first married couple to fly into space together was on STS-47 in 1992.
  • The first Native American to fly and to walk in space was John Herrington on STS-113 in 2002.
Space Shuttle liftoff
Space Shuttle lifting off

Shuttle Disasters

Mission STS-51L with the space shuttle Challenger was a much publicized flight with the first American teacher onboard. Christine McAuliff was chosen to be the first teacher in space for the NASA Teacher in Space program and was to teach two classrooms live from the Shuttle. All around the US, schoolchildren watched the liftoff of the Challenger live.

Everyone old enough to remember knows the phrase “go with throttle up” as it relates to the Challenger disaster and probably remembers where they were when they heard the news on the morning of January 28, 1986. At 73 seconds after liftoff and an altitude of 46,000 feet, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing everyone onboard. Among the crew was Astronaut Judith Resnik, who became the first American female astronaut to be killed during space flight.

The Space Shuttle program was put on hold for the next 2 ½ years for the investigation and modifications. The Space Shuttle program continued without a problem until the morning of February 1, 2003. After 15 days in space, the Shuttle Columbia was heading towards the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a landing when something went wrong and it disintegrated over Texas killing everyone onboard.

Unknown at liftoff, a piece of foam broke off and damaged the shuttles thermal protection system that protects the shuttle during the heat of re-entry, causing Columbia to burn up.

Space Shuttle tragedies
Challenger and Columbia disasters

Accomplishments of the Space Shuttle Program

Many people say that the Space Shuttle program has been a waste of money, yet these same people use the technology every day that the US space programs invented. The International Space Station (ISS) could not have been built without the Space Shuttle Program. The Hubble telescope couldn’t have been repaired and upgraded without the Space Shuttle program. Other inventions related to the US Space Shuttle program include:

  • Light Emitting Diode (LED) as a cancer treatment allows destruction of cancer cells while leaving the surrounding tissue unharmed.
  • Pill sized monitors that can monitor what is going on inside our body.
  • Lightning and wind shear protection at airports.
  • Helmets that can protect us from concussions
  • Hydroponics has been improved.
  • Instant reading ear thermometers
  • The launching and repairing of GPS and communication satellites so everyone can use their cells phones.
Space Shuttle landing


As the US Space Shuttle program was winding down, the current US administration changed plans by canceling the Constellation Program, the spacecraft that was to replace the shuttle and also take Americans back to the moon. Part of the Constellation Program, the Orion is going to be kept.

As of now, the U.S. is getting their astronauts to the International Space Station via Russian spacecraft. The Orion spacecraft is being tested at this time to return U.S. astronauts into space with the hopes of landing on asteroids, Mars and deep space exploration.

Copyright © 2010-2014 Sam Montana

Notes and Resources

[1] Because of delays and postponements of certain shuttle missions, the STS mission numbers are not in order and some have letters after them.

[2] NASA - President Nixon's 1972 Announcement on the Space Shuttle

NASA - Complete detailed listing of every shuttle mission

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