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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  • 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

  • Space shuttle docked with ISS

    The first American woman in space was Sally Ride on Challenger in 1983 (she flew on the same orbiter again in 1984).

    In 1995, Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, on Discovery. She became the first female mission commander in 1999, on Columbia.

    Senator John Glenn became the oldest man to go into space when he flew on Discovery in 1998 at the age of 77. In 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. 

    The space shuttle programme completed nine dockings with the Russian space station Mir. It has docked with the International Space Station 36 times, prior to its final mission.

    Excluding Atlantis's final flight, the programme has carried 355 individuals into space. It has racked up 20,830 orbits and 1,310 days of flight time.

    Photo credit: Nasa

  • 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

Topic: After Hours

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