Countdown begins

Skip to content Skip to local navigation Skip to navigation Skip to search Help Accessibility Help BBC News Science & Environment Home UK Africa Asia-Pac Europe Latin America Mid-East South Asia US & Canada Business Health Sci/Environment Tech Entertainment Video 6 July 2011Last updated at 17:33 GMT Share this page Delicious Digg Facebook reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Email Print Space shuttle timeline The story of the space shuttle: After three decades the shuttle era is drawing to a close. With the 135th and final mission scheduled for 8 July, we chart some of the highs and lows of its many journeys into space.

The story of the space shuttle

After three decades the shuttle era is drawing to a close. With the 135th and final mission scheduled for 8 July, we chart some of the highs and lows of its many The space shuttle was conceived as a concept long before man had even stepped on to the Moon. Its development seemed to many the stuff of science fiction made real. The test orbiter, Enterprise, even had a name taken from the Star Trek TV series.

First launch12 April 1981

When Columbia made the inaugural launch, she was manned by astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen. Even today that seems daring – that they should climb aboard a vehicle that had not first been sent on an unmanned test mission.

Spacewalk4 April 1983

Challenger, the second shuttle, was the first to conduct a spacewalk. With two machines Nasa now had a fleet of re-usable spaceplanes. They would change the way humans would live and work in space. Large payloads could be taken into orbit – even retrieved and returned safely to Earth.

Spacewoman18 June 1983

The multi-seat shuttle meant many more people could go into space than had been the case with Nasa’s earlier capsule designs. Many non-military personnel were called up, including physicist Sally Ride – the first American woman to go into space.

Untethered spacewalk7 February 1984

Shuttle missions provided some iconic moments. Bruce McCandless hanging in space above a blue globe is surely one of the most majestic. McCandless was testing the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a device that enabled un-tethered spacewalks.

Challenger disaster28 January 1986

Challenger’s destruction 72 seconds into its 10th mission punctured the notion that space flight had become routine. Among the seven astronauts to lose their lives was Christa McAuliffe, who was set to become the first US civilian and teacher in space.

Return to flight29 September 1988

Twice Discovery would be called upon to return the orbiters to active service following a major accident. The first return to flight mission saw astronauts wear their familiar pressurised Launch Escape, or “pumpkin”, suits for the first time.

Magellan launched4 May 1989

Magellan was the first planetary mission to be launched by an orbiter. It was despatched to Venus to make a radar map of its surface. In the years ahead the shuttle would launch a range of science probes and telescopes.

Hubble telescope24 April 1990

The shuttle would have a recurring association with the Hubble Space Telescope. The astronomical facility would transform our knowledge of the cosmos, but without the regular servicing from orbiter astronauts the HST would never have lasted as long.

Hubble repaired2 December 1993

The most important of those re-visits was made by Endeavour within four years of the original launch. The shuttle carried up the equipment that would correct Hubble’s flawed vision. The telescope became one of the best showcases for the shuttle.

Shuttle-Mir docking27 June 1995

Before the International Space Station there was Mir, the Russian platform. The lessons learned from the 11 orbiter flights to Mir would pave the way for the ISS and the concept of a station project operated by multiple partners.

Oldest man in space29 October 1998

John Glenn was America’s first orbiting astronaut in 1962. His flight on Discovery in 1998 made him not only the oldest person to fly in space at the age of 77, but the only one to have flown in both the Mercury and Space shuttle programmes.

ISS mission begins4 December 1998

Russia began the construction of the ISS, a $100bn (£62bn) project that would take more than 10 years to complete. Some 36 shuttle flights would follow Endeavour’s delivery of the first US component – a connecting module called Unity.

Columbia disaster1 February 2003

Columbia’s loss underlined once again the vulnerabilities in the shuttle transportation system’s design. Insulation foam falling off the external tank on lift-off had damaged the ship’s left wing. The hot gases encountered on re-entry penetrated the hole and tore Columbia apart.

Beginning of the end14 January 2004

Shuttle safety was now a pressing issue. George W Bush signalled the fleet’s retirement, and suggested a replacement transport system be developed to take astronauts back to the Moon. His Constellation project would be cancelled by his successor, however.

“Start Quote
In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service.”

End QuotePresident George W Bush14 January 2004Return to flight26 July 2005

When Eileen Collins and her crew took Discovery back into space, a series of modifications had been introduced to the shuttle and its operation. This included the introduction of a back-flip manoeuvre at the ISS, to allow for a photo inspection of the orbiter’s heatshield.

Almost two and a half years after the Columbia disaster, Discovery relaunched Nasa's shuttle programme with a mission to the International Space Station.Teacher in space8 August 2007

Barbara Morgan was the back-up to Christa McAuliffe in 1986. A teacher by profession, she later joined Nasa’s astronaut corps as a mission specialist. Twenty-one years after the Challenger accident, she finally got her chance to go into space.

Columbus lab7 February 2008

The Columbus space lab was Europe’s largest contribution to the International Space Station to date. Designed to stay in space permanently, the 12.8-tonne Columbus module was plucked from its berth in Atlantis’s bay by the station’s robotic arm.

Discovery’s last flight24 February 2011

Space shuttle Discovery was regarded as the “leader of the fleet”. She conducted both the “return to flight missions” following Challenger and Columbia. She also flew more missions, 39, than any of the other orbiters.

Endeavour’s last flight16 May 2011

The space station could not have been built without the space shuttle. Remarkably, though, it was not until the penultimate flight of the programme that everyone got to see a close-up image of a shuttle actually docked to the orbiting outpost.


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