When Apollo 17 returned to earth, marking the end of manned missions to the moon, NASA was already one year into its next big project.
Richard Nixon had taken advantage of the public’s enthusiasm for space and the associated availability of public funding to announce that NASA would develop a system to shuttle astronauts into space and back in a reusable craft, substantially reducing both the cost of spaceflight and turnaround time. Some at NASA thought we’d be launching shuttle missions every couple of weeks!
By 1979 the Columbia Shuttle had been delivered to Cape Kennedy for testing. In April of 1981 all was go for STS1; the first manned Shuttle Mission began. Two astronauts lifted off like a rocket, dropped their external fuel tanks, orbited the earth 37 times in 54 hours and returned to earth, landing like a plane at Edwards Air Force base in California.
Over the next four years the rest of the Shuttle Fleet – Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour- were all delivered to Cape Kennedy and, in that order, added to the Shuttle rotation.
Now, any history of the Space Shuttle program must include the tragedies of the Challenger breakup on launch and the disintegration of the Columbia on re-entry.
If you’re old enough, you remember where you were when Christie MAcCauliff, who would have been the first teacher in space, and the rest of the Challenger crew lost their lives. I was a news photographer based in Tampa back then. I’d attended the launches of STS 3 through STS 9 and skipped STS 10, the Challenger launch. I remember though, Ruthy and I were standing outside our condo watching the con-trail all the way over on the ocean side of the state. By then I’d seen enough launches to know something was going terribly wrong.
But it’s not fair to the legacy of the astronauts who lost their lives and the Shuttle Program as a whole if I don’t point out its many successes. More than 600 crew members flew more than 500 million miles in space and returned safely to earth. The space shuttle program lifted more than 3 million pounds of cargo into space including the Hubble Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the interplanetary probes Magellan, Ulysses, and Galileo and almost all the components of the International Space Station.
The Shuttle Discovery also took Astronaut and US Senator John Glenn back to space 36 years after his first Mercury mission in 1962. At 77 Glenn was the oldest person to reach space until Ms. Wally Funk, age 82, who once trained to be a Mercury astronaut, joined Jeff Bezos in his Blue Origin space capsule and reached a suborbital altitude, right on the edge of space.
The US Space Shuttle program ended on this day in history, July 21, 2011 with the Shuttle Atlantis touching down at Kennedy Space Center. When he landed the flight’s commander, Capt. Christopher J. Ferguson, said, “Mission complete, Houston. After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history, and it’s come to a final stop.”