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

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TOPICS: After Hours
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  • Space shuttle in space

    Nasa is approaching the end of an era with the retirement of the space shuttle.

    The oldest craft in the fleet, Discovery, completed its final voyage in March, while Endeavour finished its career in April. The launch of Atlantis on Friday marks the 135th and final space shuttle mission.

    For more than 30 years the space shuttle has been the workhorse of Nasa, carrying hundreds of astronauts into space, launching numerous satellites and helping to construct the International Space Station. Pictured above is Challenger in orbit in 1983.

    The space shuttle's story began in 1969, months after the moon landing, when US officials began putting thought into a reusable spacecraft that would replace the Saturn rockets that had powered the Apollo missions.

    Following on from designs tested by Nasa throughout the 1950s and 60s, the space shuttle had evolved by 1972 into an orbiter craft that was carried into space on rockets and returned to Earth unpowered, landing like a conventional glider — albeit one that weighs over 100 tons.

    Photo credit: Nasa

  • Orbiter prototpye Enterprise in flight

    Above, the orbiter prototype Enterprise separates from the 747 shuttle carrier aircraft for its first flight without a protective tail cone, in 1977.

    The prototype space shuttle was named after the USS Enterprise in Star Trek, following a letter-writing campaign by the TV show's fans.

    Enterprise conducted numerous flight tests in the atmosphere in 1977, but was not equipped with engines or a heat shield, and was never intended to be sent into space.

    It is currently on display at the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport in Virginia.

    Photo credit: Nasa

  • Space shuttle on launch pad

    Above, Columbia sits on the launch pad for the first shuttle flight into space on 12 April, 1981. John W Young and Robert L Crippen flew the shuttle into orbit for a two-day mission to test the orbiter's functionality.

    The orbiter measures 78 feet in width and 122 feet in length, of which nearly half is the cargo bay.

    The two narrow rockets on the side of the shuttle's body are solid-propellant rockets, a major innovation for the shuttle programme. Together they provide over 80 percent of the lift-off thrust. These rockets fall to Earth after two minutes, after which they are recovered from the sea, refurbished and reused for later missions.

    The final component of the space shuttle design is the external booster tank, which provides fuel for the orbiter's three engines during launch. Around eight and a half minutes after blast-off, the external tank is jettisoned into the sea. It is the only component of the launch system not reused.

    The external tank is usually orange; on the first two shuttle flights it was painted white as a precaution to help radiate heat. Nasa engineers later decided this was unnecessary. 

    Photo credit: Nasa

Topic: After Hours

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