That mission marked many firsts, including the first time solid rocket engines were used to propel a spaceship into orbit, and the first time a spaceship landed back on Earth by gliding down a runway, instead of splashing into the ocean like Apollo capsules or on land like Russia's spacecraft. Columbia's flight was also the first powered test flight of the space shuttle, and marked the first time a spacecraft's debut test flight was manned, rather than unmanned.
Although the mission saw a few slight anomalies, overall the space shuttle performed exceptionally on its maiden voyage.
Because of high winds at Columbia's planned landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the shuttle was forced to glide down at the backup site of White Sands Test Facility near Las Cruces, N.M. While the site, now called the White Sands Space Harbor, still remains a backup landing facility for the shuttle, a shuttle never landed there following the STS-3 mission.
During the STS-7 mission, Ride and the other four astronauts onboard, led by Bob Crippen, deployed two telecommunications satellites—one for Canada and one for Indonesia.
This was the seventh space shuttle mission, and was the second mission for the Challenger orbiter. At the time, the five spaceflyers on STS-7 were the largest single crew to fly together in space.
This mission was also the first time the space shuttle launched and landed at night.
The six crewmembers onboard spent 10 days on a joint NASA/European Space Agency program to demonstrate the usefulness of the shuttle to conduct advanced scientific research. Spacelab would go on to be used on 22 shuttle missions until April 1998.
This mission also marked the first time a space shuttle landed back where it launched, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. While Kennedy is now the preferred landing site for shuttles, the first space shuttle missions landed at California's Edwards Air Force Base. Now Edwards is used as a backup landing site.
The shuttle astronauts used a combination of spacewalks and robotic arm maneuvers to grab Solar Max and replace its attitude control mechanism and electronics systems, significantly boosting the life of the satellite. The activities would pave the way for other spacecraft servicing missions, such as those to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
The problem began with exceptionally cold weather, which prevented a rubber O-ring on one of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters from maintaining its seal, allowing hot gas to leak and damage the shuttle's external fuel tank and the hardware attaching the booster to the vehicle.
The right solid rocket booster separated from the shuttle, and the fuel tank broke apart, causing the orbiter to be torn apart by aerodynamic stresses. [Special Report: Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster – 25 Years Later]
It would take two years of investigations and modifications before a NASA space shuttle flew in space again.
After Challenger, the space agency conducted a thorough review of the program and put many fixes in place to prevent another such accident. The STS-26 mission deployed a communications satellite and included a series of science experiments performed by Discovery's crew.
Unfortunately, Challenger wouldn't be the last shattering loss for the shuttle program, although NASA maintained a clean record for 15 years after Discovery's return-to-flight mission.
Discovery's five-astronaut crew, led by commander Loren Shriver, spent five days in space deploying the observatory and conducting science experiments. Because of its vantage point in space, beyond Earth's blurring atmosphere, Hubble could take much more detailed photos than comparable ground telescopes.
However, soon after the telescope started snapping pictures, scientists realized that an error in the construction of Hubble's main mirror was significantly compromising image quality, causing pictures to come out blurry. Luckily, Hubble is the only telescope designed to be serviced in space by astronauts.
STS-49 mission specialists Pierre Thuot, Richard Hieb, and Thomas Akers conducted the extravehicular activity (EVA) to capture and repair the broken Intelsat VI-F3 satellite. The communications satellite had been stranded in the wrong orbit since its launch two years earlier in March 1990.
The astronauts successfully attached a new second stage rocket to boost the spacecraft into its intended geosynchronous orbit.
The crew, led by commander Richard Covey spent 10 days performing five spacewalks to install the new hardware. The new optics proved to correct the blurring, and STS-61 was pronounced a triumphant success, opening the door for Hubble to revolutionize our understanding of the universe. [Spectacular Photos From The Revamped Hubble Telescope]
STS-61 would be followed by four more servicing missions to upgrade Hubble over the years.
Atlantis' STS-71 mission delivered two Russian cosmonauts to the station to begin their months-long stay on Mir. The mission also picked up a NASA astronaut and two other cosmonauts – who had been serving on the Mir crew – to give them a ride home.
The 77-year old Glenn was making his second spaceflight, after launching on Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962. Glenn was one of the original Mercury 7, the first group of United States astronauts ever selected. He was the fifth person in space and the first American to orbit the Earth.
NASA's first shuttle to visit the space station was Endeavour, which launched on the STS-88 mission on Dec. 4, 1998 and carried the first American module, the Unity node to the station. Unity was connected to the first space station segment, the Russian Zarya module, which Russia had launched less than a month earlier on a Russian Proton rocket.
The cause was eventually traced to a piece of foam insulation on the shuttle's external tank, which had flaked off during launch and impacted the orbiter's left wing. Though no one knew it at the time, subsequent analysis showed the debris likely punched a plate-sized hole in the wing, causing the vehicle to fail to withstand the strains of reentry.
Like the first return-to-flight mission, after Challenger, this voyage was flown by shuttle Discovery.
The 13-day mission, led by commander Eileen Collins, tested out the new safety techniques that had been developed post-Columbia, including using a sensor system attached to a long pole to scan the orbiter after launch to make sure no catastrophic debris strikes have taken place. Discovery's crew also tested heat shield repair techniques during several spacewalks.
Since then, heat shield inspections have become a standard part of every shuttle mission since the Columbia accident.
The shuttle Discovery launched on its last mission Feb. 24, 2011. The orbiter delivered the final major U.S. contribution to the space station – the Permanent Multipurpose Module Leonardo – effectively completing the American portion of the orbiting lab.
The shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to lift off on its last space voyage June 29 to bring a cosmic ray-hunting astrophysics experiment and a load of extra hardware to the space station.
After the final space shuttle flights, NASA's three orbiters are to be retired to American museums.