U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page

Launch of STS-26 Š return to space

STS-26 Discovery lifts off from its platform at Kennedy Space Center on September 29, 1988. Exhaust plumes billow from the two solid rocket boosters and covers launch pad as the Discovery, atop of the orange external tank clears the launch tower and heads for Earth orbit. STS-26 marks NASA's first human spaceflight mission since the 51L Challenger accident, January 28, 1986.

STS-83 on launch pad

Under a clear blue sky that is reflected in the water of the turn basin, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia rolls out to Launch Pad 39A in preparation for the STS-83 mission.

Challenger explosion

Main engine exhaust, solid rocket booster plume and an expanding ball of gas from the external tank is visible seconds after the Space Shuttle Challenger accident on Jan. 28, 1986.

Personal hygiene equipment on orbit locations (with galley)

Personal hygiene equipment on orbit locations (with galley).

Crew compartment and payload bay

The Space Shuttle offers a wide range of payload accommodations and services that satisfy the requirements of almost any kind of payload. Shuttle payloads may reside in a shirtsleeve (pressurized) environment inside the middeck of the orbiter's crew compartment or in the unpressurized environment of the payload bay.

SRB parachutes to Earth

Solid rocket booster re-entry.

STS-1 on launch pad

The first Space Shuttle, STS-1, waits on the pad before launch, March 1981.

Diagram of Shuttle interior

Orbiter structures.

Space Shuttle


The history of the Space Transportation System (STS), the official name for the Space Shuttle Program, developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), began formally on January 5, 1972, when President Richard Nixon approved the development of a reusable space transportation system. In particular, it approved the development of a Space Shuttle, a piloted spacecraft that could be boosted into orbit by a reusable launch vehicle and which could return to Earth like an airplane, ready to be used again with only limited refurbishing.


This vehicle was designed to replace the expendable launch vehicles that NASA was using to deliver commercial, scientific, and applications spacecraft into Earth's orbit. Its unique design would also enable its use as a platform for scientific laboratories, an orbiting service center for other satellites, and a return carrier for previously orbited spacecraft.


This new vehicle would reach orbit by a combination of its own main engines and boosters. It consisted of three primary elements: (1) a delta-winged orbiter spacecraft with a large crew compartment, a 15 by 60-foot (4.6 by 18-meter) cargo bay, and three main engines; (2) two solid rocket boosters (SRBs); and (3) an external fuel tank housing the liquid hydrogen and oxidizer burned in the main engines. The orbiter and the two SRBs were reusable. The external tank would be jettisoned into the ocean and not recovered.


Work on the first of four orbiters, Orbiter 101, began in mid-1974, under a contract awarded to Rockwell International. Thiokol Corporation would produce the motors for the SRB, and Martin Marietta Corporation the external tank. The first orbiter was named Enterprise and was used only as a test vehicle during the critical approach and landing tests.


Building this new type of space vehicle presented several challenges. Perhaps the most important design issue after the orbiter's configuration was whether the boosters should burn liquid or solid fuel. Also important was the development of the unique reentry method of the Shuttle orbiter. Should it pass through the ionosphere with a high angle of attack that brought the orbiter through the atmosphere quickly and heated the skin to extremely high temperatures but for a short period of time, or would using a blunt-body approach like that of earlier space capsules be better? NASA eventually decided on an approach that required development of a special ceramic tile to be placed on the underside and nose of the orbiter to withstand the reentry heat.


NASA refurbished Launch Complex 39A and B, which had previously been used to launch the Saturn V Moon rockets, for the Shuttle at Cape Canaveral in Florida, named Kennedy Space Center (KSC) after the late President John F. Kennedy. The United States Air Force at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California built a second one, Space Launch Complex (SLC)-6, for a set of proposed military missions on the Shuttle. However, the Department of Defense removed its military payloads from the Shuttle after the 1986 Challenger accident, and before it had planned to launch any Shuttle missions from the site, and NASA's need to use SLC-6 for Shuttle launches disappeared.


By the end of 1979, all launch and landing facilities at KSC were ready for the first orbital flight. NASA's Johnston Space Center, near Houston, Texas, which housed the mission control center and Shuttle mission simulator facilities, was also ready.


There would be no shortage of customers either. By the end of 1979, the first few years of Shuttle flights had been fully booked with nine commercial and foreign users reserving space along with NASA's own payloads and Department of Defense and other U.S. government agency missions.


The first four Shuttle flights were conducted from April 21,1981 to July 4, 1982. These test flights, collectively called the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) program, demonstrated how the spacecraft performed under real spaceflight conditions. They tested whether the Shuttle could reach Earth orbit, perform useful work there, and return safely to Earth. During the four flights of Columbia, NASA tested the Shuttle as a launch vehicle, habitat for crew members, freight handler, instrument platform, and aircraft. NASA also evaluated ground operations. Each flight increased the various structural and thermal stresses on the vehicle, both in space and in the atmosphere, by a planned amount.


After the landing of STS-4, NASA declared the OFT program, which had consisted of more than 1,100 tests and data collections, a success.


But by January 1986, there had been only 24 Shuttle flights, although in the 1970s NASA had projected more flights than that for every year of operation. While the system was reusable, its complexity, coupled with the rigors of flight, meant that the time needed to prepare the Shuttle for another flight was several months instead of several days. In addition, all manner of problems associated with ensuring the safety and performance of this complex system delayed missions. Critics said that NASA should never have advertised the system's cost-effectiveness and reliability as selling points when it had been considered 10 years earlier. In some respects, therefore, there was some agreement by 1985 that the effort had been both a triumph and a tragedy. The ambitious program had developed an exceptionally sophisticated vehicle, one that no other nation on Earth could have built at the time. Then again, the Shuttle was essentially a continuation of space spectaculars, much like Apollo, and its much-touted capabilities had not been realized. It made far fewer flights and conducted far fewer scientific experiments than NASA had publicly predicted.


Even so, the program enjoyed considerable success as a platform for scientific research. While the primary mission of any spacecraft designed to carry astronauts must be ensuring the safety of its crew rather than the science carried out in orbit or achieving some other technical objective, Shuttle advocates often cited the Shuttle's many scientific investigations as important contributions that justified the high cost of the program.


Among the notable developments of the first 24 flights, in June 1983 Dr. Sally K. Ride, a NASA scientist-astronaut, became the first American woman to fly in space aboard STS-7, and in August 1983 Guion S. Bluford, Jr. became the first African-American astronaut in space by serving on the crew of STS-8. This era also saw flights of people who were not truly astronauts. Senator Jake Garn of Utah and Representative Bill Nelson of Florida both left Congress long enough to fly on the Shuttle in 1985 and 1986, respectively. Enthusiasts especially endorsed the development of Spacelab, a sophisticated laboratory built by the European Space Agency, that fit into the Shuttle's cargo bay. The three Spacelab missions used the Shuttle as an environment for scientific investigations, studying everything from plant life and monkey nutrition to x-ray emissions from clusters of galaxies. Even so, many scientists questioned the practicality of the Shuttle for scientific activities and suggested that the developmental costs could more usefully have been applied to expendable systems and robotic probes that promised higher scientific returns at less cost.


However, on January 28, 1986, the euphoria turned to sadness as NASA experienced its worst accident ever. On that day, STS 51-L, the Challenger, blew up with all aboard killed, including a schoolteacher planning to conduct a class from space. The memory of this tragedy dominated the thoughts of many Americans for the next two years and effectively overshadowed the program's considerable accomplishments. The loss of life and, in particular, the loss of individuals who were not career astronauts haunted both the public and the agency. The agency conducted a far-reaching examination of the accident and used the findings of the independent Rogers Commission and the NASA STS 51-L Data and Design Analysis Task Force to implement a series of recommendations that improved the human spaceflight program from both a technical and management perspective.


After a complete overhaul of the Shuttle program, including a redesign of the solid rocket boosters that had been a major contributing cause of the accident, Shuttle flights resumed with STS-26 in September 1988. This flight proved the safety of the redesigned solid rocket boosters.


The Shuttle soon returned to its former status as a workhorse of space exploration, although no longer used to launch commercial or military satellites. Since 1986, the Shuttle has launched the Magellan spacecraft to Venus, the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter, and the Ulysses spacecraft to study the Sun. The Shuttle also has deployed the Gamma Ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite. Over the years, the Shuttle has carried millions of pounds of cargo and many major payloads into orbit for commercial interests, other nations, and educational institutions. Its crews have also conducted extravehicular activities (spacewalks) including a breathtaking series of lengthy spacewalks on four crucial servicing missions devoted to refurbishing and vastly improving the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope. Beginning with STS-96 in May 1999, spacewalks have been the primary means of constructing and outfitting the International Space Station. As of the successful culmination of STS-109 in March 2002, 108 Shuttle missions have flown and the Space Shuttle remains the only vehicle in the world able to deliver and return large payloads to and from orbit. The design, now approaching its third decade, is still state-of-the-art in many areas, including computerized flight control, airframe design, electrical power systems, thermal protection system, and main engines. It is also the most reliable launch system now in service anywhere in the world, with a success-to-failure ratio of more than 98 percent.


Through all of these activities, a good deal of realism about what the Shuttle can and cannot do has emerged. The Shuttle is enormously expensive to fly and has been unable to deliver on its promise of routine access to space. Every flight costs between $400 million and $1 billion, and many have proposed that the Shuttle program be replaced by a more economical launch system. NASA has recognized the need to develop a new vehicle to achieve that end, but there is little consensus about how to achieve it as the new century begins.


-Judy Rumerman



Ezell, Linda Neuman. NASA Historical Data Book, Volume III. NASA SP-4012. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1988. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4012/vol3/sp4012v3.htm

Launius, Roger D. Frontiers of Space Exploration. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Rumerman, Judy A., compiler. Human Space Flight: A Record of Achievement, 1961-1998. Monographs in Aerospace History, Number 9. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, August 1998. Text available at http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/40thann/humanspf.htm

Rumerman, Judy A. NASA Historical Data Book, Volume VI: 1979-1988. NASA SP 2000-4012. NASA History Office, Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2000. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4012/vol5/cover5.html


Further Reading:

Allen, Joseph. Entering Space. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1984.

Cooper, Henry S. F., Jr. Before Lift-off: The Making of a Space Shuttle Crew. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Forres, George. Space Shuttle: The Quest Continues. London: Ian Allen, 1989.

Furniss, Tim. Space Shuttle Log. London: Jane's, 1986.

Guilmartin, John F., and Maurer, John. A Space Shuttle Chronology. NASA Johnson Space Center, 1988.

Gurney, Gene, and Forte, Jeff. The Space Shuttle Log: The First 25 Flights. Blue Ridge Summit, Penn.: Aero Books, 1988.

Heppenheimer, T. A. The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA's Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle. SP-4221, Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1999. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4221/sp4221.htm.

___________. Countdown: A History of Space Flight. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997.

Jenkins, Dennis. Space Shuttle: The History of Developing the National Space Transportation System. Marceline, Kansas: Walsworth Pub. Co., 1996.

Joels, Kerry Mark, and Kennedy, Greg. Space Shuttle Operator's Manual. Ballantine Books, 1982.

Launius, Roger L. and Ulrich, Bertram. NASA & the Exploration of Space. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998.

Lewis, Richard S. The Voyages of Columbia: The First True Spaceship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

__________. The Last Voyage of Challenger. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Neal, Valerie, Lewis, Cathleen S. and Winter, Frank H. Spaceflight: A Smithsonian Guide. New York: Macmillan, 1995.

Nelson, Bill, with Buckingham, Jamie. Mission: An American Congressman's Voyage to Space. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988.

Stockton, William, and Wilford, John Noble. Spaceliner: Report on Columbia's Voyage into Tomorrow. New York: Times Books, 1981.

Toward a History of the Space Shuttle: An Annotated Bibliography. Washington, D.C.: Monographs in Aerospace History No. 1, 1992). Compiled by Roger D. Launius and Aaron K. Gillette. Available at http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/Shuttlebib/cover.html


“Shuttle Reference Manual.” http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/Shuttle/reference/shutref/index.html


Educational Organization

Standard Designation  (where applicable

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 8

Students will develop an understanding of the attributes of design.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 9

Students will develop an understanding of engineering design.