Prior to the development of the Space Shuttle, manned flights into space involved attaching a capsule (with the crew inside) to a rocket that was launched into space – but only the capsule would return to Earth and this could not be reused. The Space Shuttle, however, was designed to launch like a rocket, and land like a plane – it was the First reusable spacecraft.
In 1981, NASA’s Columbia Space Shuttle made its maiden orbital flight between 12 and 14 April. This was the first time a spacecraft had people on board during its debut flight. The mission, officially designated STS-1 (Space Transportation System), became the First Space Shuttle Flight.
The two astronauts that NASA carefully chose for the job were John Young and Bob Crippen. John was the commander of the mission, having travelled into space four times before and walked on the moon in 1972. Bob Crippen, a Navy test pilot, piloted the Shuttle. He later went on to command three future Shuttle missions.
“It wasn’t until we had like a minute to go,” said Crippen, “that I turned to John and said, “Hey, I think we might really do it!”
Columbia was launched at 7am into the sky above NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and eight minutes later the two astronauts were circling the Earth at a speed of over 17,000 miles an hour. They did 36 orbits and spend 54.5 hours in the Shuttle before safely landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California, having accomplished more than 130 valuable flight test objectives.
"We sure learned a lot," said Young. "When we got back, I think Chris Kraft [Johnson Space Center Director] said it best: We just got infinitely smarter."
The first Space Shuttle flight marked the start of a run of 27 successful flights for Columbia.
Following STS-1, NASA developed four more Space Shuttles: Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. Altogether they completed 135 different missions. The combined mission time for these workhorse, off-planet transporters was 19 hours 21 minutes and 23 seconds.
The Space Shuttles carried out every conceivable role over their career, including satellite launches and recovery, astronaut transit and supply carrier. They were also instrumental in the ten-year project to build the Largest artificial satellite, the International Space Station.
The Space Shuttle program was sadly marred by two tragic incidents.
On January 28, 1986, Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight on mission STS-51-L, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members, which included five NASA astronauts and two Payload Specialists.
Then on February 1, 2003, during its 28th mission, Columbia disintegrated while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members. Since then, new equipment and procedures have been designed to keep astronauts travelling to space safer than ever. For example, it is unlikely that a tragedy like the deaths in 2003 will happen again since the creation of the spacesuit Felix Baumgartner wore for his supersonic freefall parachute jump in 2012.
The 30-year Space Shuttle programme ended in 2011.
Following its inaugural journey in 1981, the shuttle program expanded the limits of human achievement and broadened our understanding of space. NASA engineers continue to work on the next generation of spacecraft that will return astronauts to the moon and even take them to Mars and beyond. As technology continues to advance, there’s no limit to what we can learn about the universe around us.