Now that NASA’s shuttle program has officially ended, we can look back at the accomplishments, as well as the failures that this unprecedented mission experienced. While the Apollo missions were still being executed the shuttle was being born. Dubbed “Phase A” the planning and details were being drawn up and eventually grew into “Phase B” which were more detailed and complex.
Nixon is the President that can be credited with creating the Space Task Group, which had the responsibility of choosing the design and deployment strategy of future space missions. Eventually they decided on the reusable winged orbiter, as the shuttle, and solid rocket boosters, and an expendable external tank as the way to launch it. The official start date was January 5th, 1972.
The original orbiter was supposed to be named Constitution but due to a massive write in campaigned staged by Star Trek fans the name was changed to Enterprise. In September 1976 the Enterprise was released, but you have to learn to glide before you can fly, and several glide testes were performed to validate the design. Once the design was validated they built a fully functional orbiter and named it Columbia. Its first launch was April 12th, 1981, which was the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. Three more orbiters were delivered to Kennedy Space Center named Challenger in 1982, Discovery in 1983, and Atlantis in 1985. Endeavor was built as a replacement to Challenger, and delivered May 1991.
The orbiters flew a total of 114 missions, all but two successful. On January 28th, 1986 Challenger had a malfunction during take off and was lost 73 seconds after lift-off. Unfortunately all seven crew members were lost. Columbia was lost February 1st, 2003 during re-entry and all seven crew members were lost as well. Even with these two accidents there was only a 2% death rate for astronauts on the shuttles.
The shuttles were used for a wide variety of applications during their two decade tenure. They would bring new crew members to the International Space Station, provide the personal and living arrangements for servicing missions for various telescopes, probes, or observatories. They also were used to carry and deploy satellites.
The legacy of the shuttle has yet to be determined. Yes it was with in the original development costs and time estimates given to Richard Nixon in 1971 but the operational costs, flight rate, payload capacity, reliability and turnaround time have been worse than anticipated. The shuttle program was discontinued because it became too costly to launch. Where the space program goes now is unknown, much like space, the area the shuttle was once employed to discover.