Space Shuttle, story of NASA’s iconic space shuttle

Some spacecraft have become very symbols of space exploration: the small Soviet satellite Sputnik, the first Earth-made object to enter orbit around our planet; the giant US rocket Saturn V, which brought humans to the Moon; and it Space Shuttle of NASA, with its unmistakable launch profile, which represented a great promise, only partially fulfilled, to bring humanity into the future of space travel. Today we discover its history, its successes, and its failures.

The conception of the Shuttle

With the’Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, the space race it essentially ended with the victory of the United States. The subsequent lunar missions of the Apollo program had generated less and less public interest, and the last mission, theApollo 17 in 1972, it closed almost quietly. NASA was faced with a significant one reduction of fundsand had already started developing the next programs trying to figure out how reduce costs of missions and improve launch efficiency.

One of expense items most important of the space launches was the fact that the launchers to bring the capsules and satellites into orbit could be used once. Already in 1966 NASA had identified that the best solution to optimize costs was the development of a reusable launch system. The idea was therefore to build a means of transport real that it could carry the load into space, re-enter the atmosphere, land, and be ready for a new launch with refueling and a minimum of maintenance.


Studies on the load-bearing aircraft that aeronautics had been carrying out since the 1950s: these were aircraft without wings, or with wings much smaller than those of common aircraft, capable of flying thanks to aerodynamic force generated not by the wings but by the shape of their fuselage itself (the “body” of the aircraft). The result of this integration will be seen very well in the shape of the shuttle designed for atmospheric reentry.

Thus was born the project that I will become Space Transportation Systemcommonly said Space Shuttle (literally “space shuttle”). After studying various alternative solutions, a definitive design will be reached partially reusable consisting of a orbiter (the actual, reusable “spacecraft”) equipped with powerful engines for departure and an aerodynamic body for re-entry, a large external tank of launch fuel (non-reusable), and two boosters, solid fuel rockets that serve to provide additional thrust during the initial phase of the launch (non-reusable).


The 5 Space Shuttles (+1)

The first Shuttle, completed in 1977, was a test model: it never went into space, but was launched into flight by a Boeing 747 to test the Orbiter’s maneuvering limits and its landing capability. Originally it should have been called Constitutionbut a large letter-writing campaign organized by fans of the science fiction television series Star Trek led to the final choice of the name Enterprisethe same as the starship protagonist of the series.


After the test model, four orbiters were put into production and launched into space in the 1980s, with a fifth built and launched in the following decade.

  • Columbia (1981)
  • Challengers (1983)
  • Discovery (1984)
  • Atlantis (1985)
  • Endeavour (1992)

Over the course of 30 years of operation until its conclusion in 2011, the Space Shuttle program carried out 135 missions in space, for a sum of 1330 days in space (on average 300 days for each orbiter), and a total of 21,158 orbits around our planet. During the missions, the Shutles carried 355 people in the space (306 men And 49 women) representing 16 nations. Five Italian astronauts flew on the Shuttle: Franco Malerba (the first Italian astronaut, in 1994), Maurizio Cheli (1996), Umberto Guidoni (1996 and 2001), Paolo Nespoli (2007), Roberto Vittori (2011). The two most recent Italian astronauts, Luca Parmitano and Samantha Cristoforetti, never flew on the Shuttle.


Over the years, Space Shuttles have performed an incredible number of activities, such as scientific experiments and satellite launches. The tasks for which they are best remembered are probably the orbit placement of the Hubble Space Telescope, in 1990, and most of the construction of the International Space Stationfrom 1998 to 2011.

Unfortunately the history of the Space Shuttle was marred by two serious events accidents which have led, in different situations, to the destruction of Challengers (in 1986) and of Columbia (in 2003), with the loss in both cases of the lives of all seven astronauts on board the vehicle.

The end of the Space Shuttle

Despite his huge successes in science and engineering fields, and his impact on the imagination of space travel that persists to this day, the Space Shuttle proved to be unable to achieve its initial goalthat is, to reduce the costs of space launches in order to make trips into orbit aroutine activities like airplane flights. The use of boosters and an external tank not reusable clashed with the idea of ​​maximum efficiency, and the complexity of the systems made the maintenance of the orbiter a long and complicated matter.

These problems, combined with the safety issues highlighted by the two disasters of Challengers he was born in Columbia, led to a growing dissatisfaction for the program, especially at a political and economic level, up to the decision in 2004 to withdraw the fleet and close the program. The last flight was completed in 2011, and since then the baton has been passed to other lo programs Space Launch System used in missions Artemis from the NASAand the series Falcon of the private company SpaceXwhich it will join Starships: both of the latter, although in different configurations, inherit the idea of ​​a partially or totally reusable vehicle.


Of the 6 orbiters built, 4 remain, which are still on display in various exhibition spaces: theEnterprise (the test model) on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid repurposed as the headquarters ofSea, Air & Space Museum in New York Harbor; The Discovery at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, Virginia; L’Atlantis to the Kennedy Space Center, Florida; and finally theEndeavour to the California Space Center in Los Angeles.