History and highlights of the space shuttle program

Countdown begins on the end of NASA's space shuttle program

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A space shuttle is carried aloft on the power of two booster rockets.

The era of the NASA space shuttle began with the very first orbital space shuttle flight that launched at three seconds after 7 a.m. on April 12, 1981. With more than 130 missions completed, the space shuttle program will be retired with its 134th and final mission, scheduled to launch at 4:33 p.m. on Feb. 27, 2011.

Like many of the shuttle's previous flights, the final mission will be a delivery run to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has astronaut Mark Kelly slated to command the Endeavor on the final shuttle mission. There is also the pending possibility, and even likelihood, according to an Associated Press report of an additional space shuttle flight that may take place in June 2011 if funding can be pushed through Congress.

Over the years, there have been many memorable accomplishments made by the space shuttle as it carried countless scientific experiments into orbit, delivered much of the ISS structure and components, and used its robotic arm to delicately place important satellites into orbit around the Earth. Unfortunately, there have also been tragedies associated with the space shuttle program -- including two lost shuttles, Columbia and Challenger, that resulted in the deaths of 13 astronauts; as President Ronald Reagan said in his eulogy of the Challenger astronauts, "We will always remember them."

Shuttle space station missions: ISS and Mir

The space shuttle has been instrumental in the construction and continued operation of the International Space Station. The main structural members of the ISS and many of the scientific and functional components were delivered by space shuttles. The space shuttle also visited and docked with the Russian space station Mir, where American astronauts spent nearly 1,000 days living and working alongside their Russian counterparts, paving the way for future cooperative efforts on the ISS, according to NASA's History of Shuttle-Mir. Both the shuttle-Mir and the work in building and using the ISS have helped improve relations between the U.S. and its space-faring partners by demonstrating the level of achievement that is possible when they work together toward common goals.

Expanding astronomy's universe of tools

For astronomers, the ability to look deep into the farthest reaches of the universe was advanced tremendously with the addition of the orbiting Hubble Telescope. First delivered into orbit by the 31st space shuttle flight, it has allowed scientists to see and photograph places where stars are being created as they watch. The space shuttle Discovery took the Hubble into orbit on April 25, 1990. Three years later, the unique agility of the space shuttle allowed Endeavor returned to the Hubble for the first of several servicing missions. Endeavor's crew repaired a flaw in Hubble's primary mirror that allowed crystal-clear sharp images, such as this one of the hydrogen towers and jets of the Carina Nebula.

Making space travel accessible

By the final scheduled space shuttle flight in February 2011 (or June if the proposed additional flight is approved), the space shuttle will have been flying for just less than 30 years. During that time, the core technologies required for successful space flight have advanced to the point where private companies are capable of developing reusable orbital vehicles for commercial use. Indeed, companies like Virgin Galactic, and Space-X have made successful test flights and are already booking passenger seats to take private citizens into space. As the space shuttle program draws to a close, an exciting new era of accessible space travel is just beginning.
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