What was the Space Shuttle? Thirty years ago, space travel was far from routine. Back then, only a handful of Americans had traveled to space, and they had done so on spacecraft that could only be used once. At the end of the voyage, the crafts would parachute into the ocean, never to be flown again.
All of that changed when NASA rolled out its first space shuttle in 1981. The new spacecraft was designed to blast off using boosters, orbit the Earth, and land like a plane—over and over again.
Shuttle Highs and Lows
In the last 30 years, NASA's five shuttles have completed more than 130 missions. They have helped the agency achieve many goals, from launching flying telescopes to helping build the International Space Station (ISS), a floating space lab in the sky. The program has also seen its share of darker days. Fourteen lives were tragically lost in two shuttle accidents. After each disaster, NASA paused the shuttle program.
The Endeavour is one of the five shuttles retired from the space program.
History of Space Shuttle
Here are some of the most important events in the shuttle's past.
April 12, 1981 - The first shuttle craft, Columbia, lifts off, carrying two astronauts.
June 18, 1983 - Challenger sails into orbit with Sally Ride. She is the first U.S. woman in space. Two months later, Guion Bluford becomes the first African American to travel into space.
February 7, 1984 - An untethered astronaut spacewalks for the first time.
January 28, 1986 - Seven crew members lose their lives when Challenger explodes shortly after liftoff. NASA suspends flights for nearly three years.
April 24, 1990 - Discovery launches the Hubble Space Telescope. Scientists soon realize that there is defect in Hubble's main mirror, causing pictures to come out blurry.
December 2, 1993 - Endeavour takes a crew to repair Hubble's mirror. After days of work, Hubble is fixed.
October 29, 1998 - John Glenn, who in 1962 became the first American to orbit Earth, returns to space aboard Discovery. At 77, he is the oldest space traveler.
December 6, 1998 - Endeavour delivers the first U.S. piece of the International Space Station.
February 1, 2003 - Seven astronauts lose their lives as Columbia returns to Earth. The shuttle breaks apart minutes before it is expected to land. NASA suspends flights more than two years.
July 21, 2011 - Atlantis completes its final mission. NASA retires its shuttle program.
The End of an Era
On July 21, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis concluded its final mission, marking the end of the space shuttle program. The U.S. government says the space vehicles are too old and too costly to operate. Instead of soaring into space, the shuttles will be on display in museums. And NASA astronauts will left without a ride of their own. For now, to reach ISS, they will have to pay to travel aboard Russian spacecraft. Due to recent budget cuts in the space program, NASA scientists suspect that U.S. astronauts might be hitchhiking to space for some time.