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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  • Shuttle landing in desert

    Discovery glides to a landing at Edwards Air Force base in 2008. 

    The shuttle typically begins its return flight around half the world away from its landing site. It angles its nose up at 40 degrees, allowing the black tiling underneath to bear the brunt of the 1,600° C heat of re-entry.

    When the craft drops below the speed of sound, at around 50,000 feet, the commander takes control. Despite the similarity of its shape to an ordinary aircraft, the shuttle makes its final approach to the runway 20 times faster than the average plane.

    The shuttle was originally intended to have air-breathing jet engines to allow it to fly as an aircraft on re-entry; however, cost and weight considerations left it entirely unpowered during the descent, making it the heaviest and fastest glider in history.

    Photo credit: Nasa

  • Hubble Space Telescope repair

    In its 30-year history, the space-shuttle programme has carried 179 payloads into orbit and retrieved 52 for return to Earth. (In fact, Nasa calculates that 97 percent of man-made material that has returned safely from space has done so courtesy of a space shuttle).

    One of the shuttle's most important missions was Endeavour's successful repair of the Hubble Space Telescope on mission STS-61 in 1993 (above), three years after Discovery had deployed it.

    Hubble's images were famously distorted by a mirror that had been ground to the wrong shape. Although it was impossible to remove the mirror in space, the technically fraught servicing mission in 1993 (captured in an early Imax film) corrected the telescope by fitting the COSTAR adaptive package into the telescope, and paved the way for ground-breaking observations.

    Best known for its stunning images of the cosmos, Hubble made its one-millionth science observation on 4 July, 2011. It has captured 50 terabytes of data to date.

    Photo credit: Nasa

  • Challenger disaster

    On 28 January, 1986, Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch at an altitude of nine miles. All six astronauts on board perished, including Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who had won a much-published competition to go into space.

    The tragedy was blamed on the failure of an O-ring joint on one of the solid-fuel booster rockets, partly due to extremely cold weather conditions in Florida.

    As a result of the inquiry that followed, Nasa tightened up safety procedures and the cost of shuttle missions soared, eradicating the notion of the space shuttle programme as a cost-effective route into space.

    Nasa returned to space 32 months later with Discovery's Return to Flight mission, having made more than 400 changes to its orbiters and rockets.

    A replacement shuttle, Endeavour, was commissioned in 1987 and made its first flight in 1992. 

    Photo credit: Nasa

Topic: After Hours

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