The space shuttle program is a long chapter of nearly 40 years in the history of the conquest of space for NASA. The program will have extended from the inaugural flight, which dates back to April 12, 1981, until the last landing on July 21, 2011, for a total of 135 flights.
The history of American space shuttles began in 1972 when then-president Richard Nixon initiated the program. At the time, the ambition was twofold: to design a space vehicle that was economical and ultimately accessible to all to reach Earth orbit and to take a step ahead of the Soviet rival in terms of space conquest.
So, here is a rundown of the most important space shuttle missions in the history of space exploration.
The first US flight in a space shuttle was the Space Shuttle Columbia (OV-102) from 12th to 14th April 1981. Space Transportation System 1 (STS-1) was the first orbiter of the shuttle project from NASA. It had two crew members on board. The flight took two days, six hours, 20 minutes, and 53 seconds. A total distance of 1,729,348 km (1,074,567 miles) was traveled, and 36 orbits were completed.
The second flight in the program and the second flight for Columbia, the STS-2, took place from November 12 to 14, 1982. It was then the first time that a manned spacecraft left Earth for the second time and returned to space. The objective was to test the Canadarm remote control arm. The mission was cut short due to a problem with the fuel cells.
The third flight for the program and the space shuttle Columbia took place from March 22 to 30, 1982. This involved testing the autopilot system during landing.
The fifth flight, again with Columbia, took place from November 11 to 16, 1982. The main objective was to deploy two commercial satellites and a scientific load. Also, note that this was the first time that a spacecraft had put a crew of four into orbit.
The seventh mission of the program was by the Space Shuttle Challenger from June 18 to 24, 1983. This is the first time a spacecraft had put a crew of five into orbit. It is also the first time that an American woman, Sally Ride, had gone into orbit (the third woman in orbit after the Russian’s Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaïa). The objective was the launch of several telecommunications satellites.
The eighth flight of the American program was with Challenger and took place from August 30 to September 5, 1983. The objective was to launch a telecommunications satellite and test the Canadarm arm with a heavy payload. This mission was also carrying the first African-American astronaut, Guion Bluford.
Challenger did the 10th flight in space from February 3 to 11, 1984. During this mission, the first free spacewalk took place, that is to say, without any physical link connecting an astronaut to his spaceship. It was also a mission to launch telecommunications satellites and recover the failed Solar Max satellite.
The 17th flight was operated by Challenger from April 29 to May 6, 1985. It was a Spacelab mission.
This was the 25th dramatic mission for NASA. However, the Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after take-off, instantly killing the seven crew members on January 28, 1986. The accident was caused by the rupture of one of the O-rings of one of the two solid rock thrusters attached to the main hydrogen tank. Seven asteroids were subsequently named in honor of the crew members.
This is the 35th mission of the program. STS-31 took place from April 24, 1990, until April 29, 1990, with Discovery. It put the now-famous Hubble Space Telescope into orbit.
The 39th mission of the program by Discovery started from April 28 to May 6, 1991. The mission objective was the launch of the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO), a gamma-ray space observatory developed by NASA. It is one of the four of the “Large Observatories program” developed by the American space agency in the 1980s to deal with the main questions in the field of astronomy and astrophysics.
This is the 50th flight of the program. STS-47 is the second mission of Space Shuttle Endeavor and took place September 12-20, 1992. It was a Spacelab mission with Japanese cooperation. Mamoru Mohri was thus the first Japanese astronaut to go into space. Also, during this mission, Mae C. Jemison was the first black woman in space.
The 51st flight of the space project took place from October 22 to November 1, 1992, aboard Columbia. STS-52 was a mission intended to study materials and deployment of the Italian satellite LAGEOS-II in cooperation with NASA.
This mission also has the distinction of being the first space funeral in history to put some of the ashes of Gene Roddenberry into orbit. He was an American screenwriter and producer best known for being the creator of the Star Trek universe.
The 58th flight of the program with Columbia started from October 18 to November 1, 1993. The STS-58 mission was a Spacelab mission dedicated to life sciences.
This was the 80th mission carried out by Columbia from November 19 to December 7, 1996. The objective was the deployment and recovery of two scientific satellites.
The 85th flight of the program was by Discovery from July 1 to 17, 1997. The mission’s objective was the continuation and resumption of mission STS-83, which had a problem with its fuel cell. It was also a Spacelab mission.
This was the 90th flight of the program with Columbia from April 17 to May 3, 1998. The objective of the mission was the last Spacelab mission called Neurolab, a neuroscience experiment.
This was the 97th mission of the American space program, which took place from February 11 to 22, 2000. STS-99 was the fourteenth mission of Space Shuttle Endeavor, whose main objective was to use the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. The SRTM is a topography system, making it possible to map nearly 80% of the land area.
The 113th mission ended in a disaster for NASA. STS-107 designates the 28th and final Space Shuttle Columbia mission. At the end of this flight on February 1, 2003, the Columbia orbiter disintegrated during the atmospheric reentry phase. The accident claimed the lives of the seven crew members and left America deeply traumatized.
The 135th and last flight for a space shuttle. The Atlantis shuttle was destined for its final flight at the International Space Station to take the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module. It had the historic take-off on July 8, 2011, and the last landing on July 21, 2011.
The objectives accomplished by the space shuttle missions are scientific, satellite launches, military missions, and the assembly and refueling of the International Space Station.
However, the space program has turned out to be a huge financial sinkhole. It has cost a total of 208 billion dollars. The shuttle was ultimately the most expensive flying machine in history. And then there are the two accidents, which claimed the lives of 14 astronauts and 2 destroyed shuttles, the STS-51-L and STS-107.
The program will remain one of the most emblematic of the history of NASA with its 135 missions and 135 legendary badges.