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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  • 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

  • Shuttle launch

    Discovery arcs into the sky after launching on a mission in 2009.

    All shuttle missions launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Until 2007, Nasa avoided launching the craft in December-January time as it was feared its 1970s-era computers might suffer a glitch on New Year's Eve that would set the ship's clock back to zero.

    On launch, the shuttle must hit a speed of almost 28,968 kph. After eight seconds, the craft is travelling at just 259kph; by the 60-second mark, it is speeding at 1,609kph. By the time the external tank has dropped away, the shuttle has burned more than 1.59 million kg of fuel. Once in orbit, it has a velocity of 17,500mph, making it the fastest winged vehicle in history.

    Steven Lindsey, commander of Discovery's last mission, highlighted the shuttle's adaptability in an interview with CBS News. "It can't leave low Earth orbit, but it can do everything else," he said.

    His opinions were echoed by Atlantis astronaut Sandra Magnus before the final mission. "It built the space station, it's done science missions that ranged from taking the Spacelab up, to the big radar missions we've done, it's done astronomy, it's done biological science, materials science and then it's done satellite deploy, repair and retrieve," she said. "It's an incredible legacy this vehicle has given us."

    Photo credit: Nasa

Topic: After Hours

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