From its first launch 30 years ago to its final launch scheduled for next Friday, NASA's Space Shuttle program has seen moments of dizzying inspiration and of crushing disappointment. When next week's launch is complete, the program will have sent up 135 missions, ferrying more than 350 humans and thousands of tons of material and equipment into low Earth orbit. Fourteen astronauts have lost their lives along the way -- the missions have always been risky, the engineering complex, the hazards extreme. As we near the end of the program, I'd like to look back at the past few decades of shuttle development and missions as we await the next steps toward human space flight. [61 photos]
While on a visit to watch the launch of Apollo 16 on April 15, 1972, Russian Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (left) listens as Kennedy Space Center Director Dr. Kurt H. Debus explains the space shuttle program. In the right foreground is a model of one the proposed Space Shuttle ship and rocket concepts.
(AP Photo) #
The inside view of a liquid hydrogen tank designed for the Space Shuttle external tank, viewed on February 1, 1977. At 154 feet long and more than 27 feet in diameter, the external tank is the largest component of the Space Shuttle, the structural backbone of the entire Shuttle system, and is the only part of the vehicle that is not reusable.
At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, this space shuttle mock-up, dubbed Pathfinder, is attached to the Mate-Demate Device for at fit-check on October 19, 1978. The mock-up, constructed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, possessed the general dimensions, weight and balance of a real space shuttle.
The Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise flies free after being released from NASA's 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft over Rogers Dry Lakebed during the second of five free flights carried out at the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California, on January 1, 1977. A tail cone over the main engine area of Enterprise smoothed out turbulent air flow during flight. It was removed on the two last free flights to accurately check approach and landing characteristics.
Looking aft toward the cargo bay of NASA's Space Shuttle Orbiter 102 vehicle, Columbia, Astronauts John Young (left) and Robert Crippen preview some of the intravehicular activity expected to take place during the orbiter's flight test, at Kennedy Space Center October 10, 1980.
The Space Shuttle Columbia on Rogers Dry lakebed at Edwards AFB after landing to complete its first orbital mission on April 14, 1981. Technicians towed the Shuttle back to the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center for post-flight processing and preparation for a return ferry flight atop a modified 747 to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The Space Shuttle Enterprise passes through a hillside that has been cut to clear its wingspan, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, on February 1, 1985. The orbiter is en route to Space Launch Complex Six aboard its specially-designed 76-wheel transporter.
(Tech. Sgt. Bill Thompson/USAF) #
The Space Shuttle Columbia (left), slated for mission STS-35, is rolled past the Space Shuttle Atlantis on its way to Pad 39A. Atlantis, slated for mission STS-38, is parked in front of bay three of the Vehicle Assembly Building following its rollback from Pad 39A for repairs to the liquid hydrogen lines.
Astronaut Joseph R. Tanner, STS-82 mission specialist, is backdropped against Earth's limb and a sunburst effect in this 35mm frame exposed by astronaut Gregory J. Harbaugh, his extravehicular activity (EVA) crew mate, on February 16, 1997. The two were making their second space walk and the fourth one of five for the STS-82 crew, in order to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).
During the first Gulf War, in April of 1991, black smoke pours from burning oil wells in the Kuwaiti desert, seen from Earth orbit by an astronaut onboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis during mission STS-37. The Iraqi army set fire to the oil wells in the region as they withdrew from their occupation of that country.
(NASA/Getty Images) #
Space shuttle external tank ET-118, which flew on the STS-115 mission in September 2006, was photographed by astronauts aboard the shuttle about 21 minutes after lift off. The photo was taken with a hand-held camera when the tank was about 75 miles above Earth, traveling at slightly more than 17,000 mph.
The space shuttle twin solid rocket boosters separate from the orbiter and external tank at an altitude of approximately 24 miles. They descend on parachutes and land in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast, where they are recovered by ships, returned to land, and refurbished for reuse.
Though astronauts and cosmonauts often encounter striking scenes of Earth's limb, this very unique image, part of a series over Earth's colorful horizon, has the added feature of a silhouette of the space shuttle Endeavour. The image was photographed by an Expedition 22 crew member prior to STS-130 rendezvous and docking operations with the International Space Station on February 9, 2010. The orange layer is the troposphere, where all of the weather and clouds which we typically watch and experience are generated and contained. This orange layer gives way to the whitish Stratosphere and then into the Mesosphere.
In this image from a NASA video, the silhouette of Space Shuttle Columbia Commander for mission STS-80, Kenneth Cockrall, is visible against the front windows of the Space Shuttle during reentry on December 7, 1996. The orange glow in the window is from ionizing atoms in the atmosphere caused by the friction of air against the Shuttle's surface during reentry.
(NASA/Getty Images) #
Near the end of the mission, the crew aboard space shuttle Discovery was able to document the beginning of the second day of activity of the Rabaul volcano, on the east end of New Britain. On the morning of Sept. 19, 1994, two volcanic cones on the opposite sides of the 6-kilometer sea crater had begun to erupt with very little warning. Discovery flew just east of the eruption roughly 24 hours after it started and near the peak of its activity.
A floor grid is marked with a growing number of pieces of Columbia debris in this NASA handout photo dated March 13, 2003. The Columbia Reconstruction Project Team attempted to reconstruct the orbiter as part of the investigation into the accident that caused the destruction of Columbia and loss of its crew as it returned to Earth on mission STS-107.
New Zealand in the background, astronaut Robert L. Curbeam Jr. (left) and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Christer Fuglesang, both STS-116 mission specialists, participate in the mission's first of three planned sessions of extravehicular activity (EVA) as construction continues on the International Space Station on December 12, 2006.
At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the STS-133 crew takes a break from a simulated launch countdown to ham it up on the 195-foot level of Launch Pad 39A. From left are, Pilot Eric Boe, Mission Specialist Michael Barratt, Commander Steve Lindsey, and Mission Specialists Tim Kopra, Nicole Stott, and Alvin Drew.
(NASA/Kim Shiflett) #
Shock wave condensation collars, backlit by the sun, occurred during the launch of Atlantis on STS-106, on September 8, 2001. The phenomenon was captured on an engineering 35mm motion picture film, and one frame was digitized to make this still image. Although the primary effect is created by the Orbiter forward fuselage, secondary effects can be seen on the SRB forward skirt, Orbiter vertical stabilizer and wing trailing edges.
The International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour, fly at an altitude of approximately 220 miles. This May 23, 2011 photo was taken by Expedition 27 crew member Paolo Nespoli from the Soyuz TMA-20 following its undocking. The pictures taken by Nespoli are the first taken of a shuttle docked to the International Space Station from the perspective of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.