NASA's Prolific Space Shuttles
NASA's storied space shuttle program has seen some amazing highs, and a couple devastating lows over the course of its 30-year history. Soon, the world's first reusable spacecraft will retire to make way for NASA's next phase. But for now, here's a look back at the most memorable missions of the space shuttle's tenure.
First Shuttle Flight: STS-1 (Columbia)
On April 12, 1981, NASA's maiden space shuttle Columbia lifted off for the first time 30 years ago, carrying astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen.
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.
A Shuttle Lands at White Sands: STS-3 (Columbia)
This March 22, 1982 shuttle mission, the third flight of the fleet, was focused on further testing of the shuttle, including its robotic arm system, Canadarm, and its thermal protection shielding.
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.
First American Woman in Space: STS-7 (Challenger)
The STS-7 crew of space shuttle Challenger included Sally Ride when it sailed into orbit on June 18, 1983, making Ride the first American woman in space. The flight came 20 years after the mission that launched the first woman pilot into space, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, during the former Soviet Union's June 1963 flight of Vostok 6.
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.
First African-American Astronaut Reaches Space: STS-8 (Challenger)
The very next shuttle mission after Ride's history-making launch saw the first flight of an African American in space. Guion Bluford launched aboard the shuttle Challenger on Aug. 30, 1983 along with four other astronauts led by commander Richard Truly. The crew released an Indian communications and weather satellite into orbit, and conducted a set of science experiments. They also tested the Canadarm on a dummy second payload.
This mission was also the first time the space shuttle launched and landed at night.
Shuttle Fleet's Spacelab Debut: STS-9 (Columbia)
NASA's STS-9 flight of shuttle Columbia, the ninth shuttle flight, launched on Nov. 28, 1983 and was a mission dedicated entirely to science. It was the first mission to use the Spacelab module, a cylindrical laboratory of science experiments packed into the shuttle's cargo bay.
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.
First Untethered Spacewalk: STS-41B (Challenger)
The STS-41B flight of Challenger lifted off on Feb. 3, 1984 and marked the first time an astronaut spacewalked outside the shuttle without being tethered. Astronauts Bruce McCandless and Robert L. Stewart tested out the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), a robotic backpack with its own thrusters that allowed the spaceflyers to move around, becoming the first human satellites to orbit the Earth.
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.
A Satellite Repair Shop: STS-41C (Challenger)
On April 6, 1984, the shuttle Challenger launched on a mission to rendezvous with the malfunctioning Solar Maximum Mission satellite (SolarMax) in what became the first in-space satellite repair. The spacecraft had been launched in 1980 to study solar flares, but was in need of some repairs.
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.
First Space Shuttle Disaster: STS-51L (Challenger)
On Jan. 28, 1986, NASA's space shuttle program saw its darkest day at the time, when seven astronauts lost their lives as Challenger disintegrated shortly after launch. One of them was high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who had been selected to be the first teacher in space.
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.
Shuttle Fleet's Return-to-Flight Mission: STS-26 (Discovery)
It took NASA 2 1/2 years to regroup from the Challenger disaster and launch the first return-to-flight mission, the STS-26 voyage of Discovery, led by commander Frederick Hauck, on Sept. 29, 1988.
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.
Launching Hubble: STS-31 (Discovery)
The space shuttle Discovery added another notable launch to its list when it launched what remains the world's most famous telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, on April 24, 1990.
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.
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Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the Space.com team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.