The space shuttle's history in pictures

The space shuttle's history in pictures

Summary: Atlantis's mission to the International Space Station is the final flight in the 30-year-old space shuttle programme, which has pushed technology to its limits

TOPICS: After Hours

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  • Wreckage of Columbia

    On 1 February, 2003, Columbia was destroyed on re-entry during mission STS-107, resulting in the death of all seven crewmembers. A suitcase-sized block of insulating foam from the external tank had broken off during launch and punched a hole in the tiles on one wing, rendering it vulnerable to the super-heated gases of re-entry.

    Pictured above, officials comb through the retrieved wreckage of Columbia.

    The disaster spelled the beginning of the end of the shuttle programme. Discovery once again carried out the Return to Flight mission in 2005, but the programme was due to be wrapped up by 2010 (later extended to 2011), as Nasa cast about for new ways of travelling into space.

    Critics of the shuttle said the design had been flawed from the very beginning. "The shuttle made America dependent on a fragile, expensive, risky launch system," space policy expert professor John Logsdon said in a Guardian interview. Logsdon noted that its design was influenced by the US Air Force, which insisted that the shuttle be able to fly at angle that would allow it to release spy satellites. While this never happened in practice, the shuttle was lumbered with a heavier heat shield than it needed.

    As early as 1993, a Nasa report recommended replacing the already out-dated system by 2000. "The United States has advanced multiple proposals since at least the mid-1980s to build a space shuttle follow-on that would be less expensive and safer to operate," Nasa's chief historian, Roger Launius, wrote on his blog. "At the same time, the target date for space shuttle replacement shifted further into the future over the years." 

    Photo credit: Nasa

  • Space shuttle landing

    In 2004, then-President Bush announced the Constellation programme would develop new technology to replace the space shuttle. Budget overruns led to the project being cancelled by President Obama in 2010.

    Some of Constellation's technology has, however, found its way into the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, intended for journeys into deep space.

    Concerns about the cost and purpose of manned spaceflight cloud Nasa's future. "There is every reason to believe that future human spaceflight vehicles will require an investment beyond the level normally granted to Nasa's programmes," said Roger Launius, citing a figure of around $240bn (£150bn).

    Nasa continues to explore the idea of partnering with private companies to develop commercial manned spacecraft technology. In April, it advanced funding of $270m to four projects that could lead to working space taxis by 2015.

    "I just don't know if we have that audacity now to build something nearly as ambitious as the shuttle," said astronaut Alvin Drew, following Discovery's last mission.

    The space shuttle Discovery will be displayed near Washington at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center. Atlantis will remain at the Kennedy Space Center visitors' complex, while the Endeavour will be displayed at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

    Photo credit: Nasa

  • Buran

    The little-known Buran shuttle was the Russian equivalent of the US space shuttle. 

    It began development in 1974 and was suspended in 1993, having made just one test flight in 1988, when it completed two orbits of the Earth with two cosmonauts on board.

    Funding issues and the collapse of the Soviet Union put paid to the Buran project. The orbiter was retired to a hangar in Kazakhstan, where it was destroyed by a roof collapse in 2002.

    Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Topic: After Hours

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