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Space Shuttle program

The Space Shuttle became the major focus of NASA in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Planned as a frequently launchable and mostly reusable vehicle, four Space Shuttle orbiters were built by 1985. The first to launch, Columbia, did so on April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first known human space flight.
Its major components were a spaceplane orbiter with an external fuel tank and two solid-fuel launch rockets at its side. The external tank, which was bigger than the spacecraft itself, was the only major component that was not reused. The shuttle could orbit in altitudes of 185–643 km (115–400 miles) and carry a maximum payload (to low orbit) of 24,400 kg (54,000 lb). Missions could last from 5 to 17 days and crews could be from 2 to 8 astronauts.
On 20 missions (1983–98) the Space Shuttle carried Spacelab, designed in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA). Spacelab was not designed for independent orbital flight, but remained in the Shuttle's cargo bay as the astronauts entered and left it through an airlock. On June 18, 1983 Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, onboard the Space Shuttle Challenger STS-7 mission. Another famous series of missions were the launch and later successful repair of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990 and 1993, respectively.
In 1995, Russian-American interaction resumed with the Shuttle–Mir missions (1995–1998). Once more an American vehicle docked with a Russian craft, this time a full-fledged space station. This cooperation has continued with Russia and the United States as two of the biggest partners in the largest space station built: the International Space Station (ISS). The strength of their cooperation on this project was even more evident when NASA began relying on Russian launch vehicles to service the ISS during the two-year grounding of the shuttle fleet following the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
The Shuttle fleet lost two orbiters and 14 astronauts in two disasters: Challenger in 1986, and Columbia in 2003. While the 1986 loss was mitigated by building the Space Shuttle Endeavour from replacement parts, NASA did not build another orbiter to replace the second loss. NASA's Space Shuttle program had 135 missions when the program ended with the successful landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011. The program spanned 30 years with over 300 astronauts sent into space.