NASA PHOTO: Columbia Liftoff April 12, 1981
The First Space Plane
Even before the Apollo moon program was complete, construction plans were being developed for a reusable spacecraft, a spaceplane designed to be launched, flown in space with heavy payloads, re-enter Earth's atmosphere, and land on a runway instead of splashing down in the ocean. In 1969, President Nixon made the decision to proceed with the Shuttle program, thus launching a new era in space travel.
There were five space-certified shuttle orbiters constructed. Two of those were destroyed in tragic accidents.
These space planes were about half the length of a 747 jet. They took off from Kennedy Space Center using 3 massive onboard engines and 2 external rockets for additional lift. So much fuel was required to give the shuttle into Earth orbit, than a massive fuel tank was necessary. Once released, the fuel tank would be destroyed upon re-entry. The booster rockets would be recovered downrange and reused.
Once the shuttle reaches low-Earth orbit, it makes a maneuver so that the spaceplane is flying backwards to protect the sensitive thermal protection system (the tiles) from damage from any space debris that might be unexpectedly encountered.
During its 30 year span, the shuttles launched and repaired a great number of satellites including the Hubble. They made construction of the International Space Station possible.
However, the idea of a reusable spacecraft was to reduce costs. It would be the costs involved to fly the shuttle safely, that ultimately doomed it. At the end of the shuttle program, it was cheaper to lift heavy payloads into space with a single rocket, than to launch the shuttle.
End of the Shuttles
In 2011, the shuttle program officially came to an end. The 3 remaining space-certified shuttles are being modified for museum display and are heading for various areas across the country. Atlantis is the only shuttle that will remain at the Kennedy Space Center as part of a new pavilion dedicated to the shuttle program. This pavilion is part of a renovation of the Kennedy Space Center and is expected to open sometime in 2012.