The Era Of The Space Shuttle
The space shuttle was an American spacecraft designed to carry payloads and crew members into low Earth orbit, as part of the Space Shuttle Program. It, along with the accompanying launch system, was the United States’ primary spacecraft for transporting astronauts and cargo into space from 1981 to 2011. It was conceived in the 1960’s and the first orbiters Challenger, Atlantis, Columbia and Discovery first flew successful operational missions from 1982. The program was terminated around 8 years after the Columbia disaster.
The shuttles operated in low Earth orbit and brought together astronauts and cargo for the space station, as well as deploying satellites. The shuttles carried out a wide variety of missions, including servicing, repairing, and upgrading the station. It provided missions to the Shuttle-Mir program in alignment with the Russian space program. As well as conducting space science, and servicing other spacecraft.
The program was once seen as the best way to get people into space, and has since been relegated to a footnote in space history. The program was shut down in 2011, after thirty years of service. The question is: was the Space Shuttle program really that useful, or was it just a political football for presidents for decades?
How Useful Were They?
The space shuttle was one of the greatest technological achievements of the twentieth century. It was a partially reusable spacecraft that could deliver large amounts of cargo and astronauts into orbit. It revolutionized space travel in its day. The shuttles also carried out numerous scientific experiments, making it a vital part of the space program. These spacecraft have also been used to perform repair missions and deploy satellites. The shuttle played a massive part in delivering and maintaining the Hubble Space Telescope.
The shuttle’s did have a high cost in the design process. But in advocating reusable tech, they brought forward the idea that the launch and operational costs of getting to and returning from orbit could be greatly reduced. Space X took this forward by leaps and bounds years later.
The last flight of the shuttle program, Atlantis, took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, returning for the last time in July 2011.
Problems With The Space Shuttles
The space shuttle program was once a source of pride for Americans, but it was plagued by problems. Most notably the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Even after the Columbia accident, which resulted in the deaths of all NASA astronauts onboard, the shuttle program was not phased out until the program’s termination in 2011.
Despite the efforts to keep operational costs down with reusable shuttles, the cost per mission were still very high, exceeding expectations. Much of this was made up of annual costs, support, personnel and maintenance. These were costs regardless of if any missions were launched or not. These were hard to justify for a publicly funded organization, especially in tough financial times. The payload capacity of the shuttle was also very limiting. While this was to be mitigated with many launches, the shuttle did not operate as frequently as planned.
While it may be easy to criticize, the shuttle program was responsible for some revolutionary technology that has found use in many industries beyond the space program. It was inspirational, a symbol of hope and adventure. It made space, the moon and the solar system seem reachable.
When Were The Space Shuttles Retired?
The final shuttle launch took place in 2011, and today only museums and historical sites house the remains of the program that once helped send humans into space. But what happened to them, and what are the shuttles doing now?
The Space Shuttles
Space Shuttle Enterprise
Enterprise was the first shuttle built, specifically for test flights. It was never designed for orbital flights, but rather for testing landing and approach flights. As such, it did not have the heat shielding, main engines or many of the sub systems required for orbital flight. Even the chassis was made from different materials and to a different test spec. It was designed as such so that it could be refitted later for operational use, but on each occasion that this was considered, alternatives were used. Enterprise would be launched from a specially outfitted Boeing 747.
Space Shuttle Atlantis
Atlantis is one of the only two remaining original orbital space shuttles. It was the last shuttle to fly an operational mission before the program was retired in 2011. Its first flight was in 1985 and it completed 33 missions, orbiting the Earth a total of 4,848 times in it’s operational lifetime.
Space Shuttle Challenger
Challenger was the second shuttle to be sent successfully into orbit, in 1983. It was only originally designed as a test vehicle, but having been converted for space flight it completed 9 missions in its operational lifetime. Challenger came to a tragic end in 1986 during its 10th mission, when the craft exploded shortly after launch, killing all the astronauts onboard.
Space Shuttle Columbia
Columbia was the first of the orbital shuttles to fly into low-earth orbit. Despite this, it was not the lead shuttle until Challenger was no longer in the fleet. It was the only one of the original design to maintain some of its test features, including ejector seats. In 2003, Columbia became the second shuttle to meet a tragic end. After taking some damage from debris during launch, the craft developed a problem with the heat shield on one of its wings. The extent of this was not known until the shuttle attempted re-entry at the end of its mission. Tragically all lives again, were lost in this incident.
Space Shuttle Discovery
Discovery was the third orbital shuttle to be sent into space, with its first operational flight in 1984. It is most notable for carrying the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. It was the shuttle that completed the most missions, 39 in total.
Space Shuttle Endeavour
Endeavour was the fifth and final shuttle to be built for orbital flight missions. It was built in 1991 to replace the Challenger shuttle. Originally, the test shuttle Enterprise was planned to be refitted, but the decision was made to build a new one out of spare parts as the cheaper option. Thus, Endeavour was put together from spare parts. It flew 27 missions in total, before retiring in June 2011.
Where Are The Space Shuttles Now?
Each of the four existing space shuttles has been retired to a separate visitor center or museum in the continental United States. The locations are:
- Space Shuttle Atlantis – Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Merritt Island, Florida
- Space Shuttle Discovery – National Air and Space Museum -The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Fiarfax County, Virginia
- Space Shuttle Endeavour – California Science Center, Los Angeles, California
- Space Shuttle Enterprise – Intrepid Sea, Air And Space Museum, New York City, New York