American spaceflight history: Space Shuttle establishes lasting human presence in space

Shuttle program launches planetary spacecraft, crews repaired Hubble and built International Space Station

FILE - In this July 8, 2011 file photo, spectators watch the space shuttle Atlantis lift off from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Atlantis was the 135th and final space shuttle launch for NASA. On Friday, May 1, 2020, NASA and SpaceX urged everyone to stay home for the first home launch of astronauts in nearly a decade, coming up later in the month, because of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin) (Phil Sandlin, AP2011)

Development of the space shuttle began at the end of the Apollo program as NASA worked to design a winged spacecraft to land on a runway. Even though the first shuttle launch wasn’t until 1981, lifting-body test vehicles were being designed and tested as early as 1963, according to the space agency, which laid the ground work for the space shuttle.

While the Apollo project made history landing the first --and last up until this point-- humans on the moon and establishing the U.S. as a leader in space exploration, the space shuttle program successfully established a permanent astronaut presence in low-Earth orbit.

NASA’s space shuttle fleet included Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour and flew a combined 135 missions in space.

During this program, NASA also made strides toward diversity, welcoming its first African American and women astronauts.

The program also experienced two horrible tragedies when Columbia and Challenger crews were destroyed.

This story is part of a series looking back on American human spaceflight ahead of the first astronaut launch from U.S. soil in nine years, set for this spring. Catch up by reading about the Mercury and Gemini programs here and the Apollo project here.

Here’s a look back at the program that established a permanent human presence in space:

1981: First space shuttle launch

Beginning a new era in human spaceflight, Space Shuttle Columbia launched on STS-1 from Kennedy Space Center on April 12, 1981. The launch date also marked 20 years to the day when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

Moonwalker John Young and astronaut Bob Crippen were on board the first space shuttle flight.

June 1983: NASA astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. NASA astronauts were proportionately men for decades. Only in 2013, did NASA welcome its first class made up of 50% men and women.

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August 1983: NASA astronaut Guy Bluford becomes the first African American in space

On Challenger's middeck, Mission Specialist Guion "Guy" Bluford, assists Dr. William E. Thornton (out of frame) with a medical test that requires use of the treadmill exercising device designed for spaceflight by the STS-8 medical doctor on Sept. 5, 1983. Guy Bluford was the first African-American astronaut to fly into space. (Image Credit: NASA)

However Bluford wasn’t the first black American to train for spaceflight, more than 16 years prior Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr. was selected by the U.S. Air Force to be part of the manned orbiting laboratory program. Tragically, Lawrence died training another pilot in a crash of an F-104 Starfighter supersonic jet on Dec. 8, 1967. The Air Force program was later canceled and the astronauts transferred to NASA where they later flew on the space shuttle program, meaning Lawrence would have likely become the first black American in space.

Bluford was accepted into the NASA astronaut program in 1978.

Jan. 28, 1986: Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy

On January 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after its lift-off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. This photo - Challenger's crew. [PHOTO: Getty Images]

Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds into flight on Jan. 28, 1986, killing her seven crew members: Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe.

The disaster was especially tragic for U.S. students looking on as McAuliffe, the first teacher to train as an astronaut, was among the crew.

The investigation that followed cause a ripple affect throughout the U.S. space program and another orbiter wouldn’t launch for more than two years.

May 4, 1989: Mapping Venus

An image captured by Magellan shows a "Crater Farm" or layering of volcanic activity and impact craters on Venus. (Image Source: NASA/JPL) (NASA/JPL)

The shuttle program helped make huge strides in planetary exploration as well as human spaceflight, launching spacecraft to study the universe and our solar system.

The first of those missions was the Magellan spacecraft, which launched on Space Shuttle Atlantis from Kennedy Space Center on May 4, 1989.

The Magellan Venus mapper was deployed into space from the orbiter’s payload bay, sending the spacecraft on its 15-month journey to Venus.

April 24, 1990: Hubble Space Telescope

Carina Nebula (2007) The Hubble Space Telescope captured this 50-light-year-wide view of the central region of the Carina Nebula, where a maelstrom of star birth — and death — is taking place. (Credit for Hubble Image: NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) (CNN)

After more than two decades of development and research, the Hubble Space telescope launched on the space shuttle. However, soon after launch the space telescope operators learned of a mirror defect that prevented the telescope from focusing all its light.

Several space shuttle missions involving lengthy spacewalks were conducted to correct the issue with the telescope. Hubble is credited with some of the most wondrous images of the solar system and beyond and has taught us more about the universe than almost any other spacecraft.

December 1998: Space station assembly begins

Space Shuttle Endeavour launched on Dec. 5, 1998 from Kennedy Space Center with Bob Cabana as the commander along with four other NASA astronauts and Russian Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev to assemble the first pieces of the International Space Station.

The month before the mission, Russia launched its piece of the ISS, Zarya, into space where it waited for the U.S. piece called Unity. Zarya and Unity were created on opposite sides of the world but Cabana and his crew were tasked with connecting the two pieces and turning on the lights to the ISS.

Today the space station spans the length of a football field and astronauts from 18 countries and counting, including the European Union, Russia, Canada, Japan and the UAE have visited the orbiting laboratory.

Feb. 1, 2003: Columbia disaster

Tragedy struck the American space program again in 2003, when 15 minutes before landing Space Shuttle Columbia broke up upon re-entry. All seven astronauts on board died: Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Israeli Space Agency astronaut Ilan Ramon.

According to NASA, communications failed as the crew returned home from a 16-day mission and the orbiter disintegrated over western Texas.

A review by the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined that a large piece of insulating foam from Columbia’s external tank had come off during launch and struck the orbiter’s left wing, causing critical damage. The damage was undetected during the mission.

As a result, significant enhancements were made to “NASA’s organizational structure, technical rigor, and understanding of the flight environment,” and the external tank was redesigned to reduce foam shedding and eliminate critical debris, according to the investigative report.

More than two years later, Space Shuttle Discovery marked the return to human spaceflight for NASA on Aug. 9, 2005.

2005: Plans to retire space shuttle, go back to the moon

Under President George W. Bush’s administration, NASA developed plans to retire the space shuttle and go back to the moon under a new program known as Constellation. The Orion spacecraft born out of this program is slated to send astronauts back to the moon by 2024.

July 2011: The final space shuttle launch

A marker to indicate where Atlantis stopped in 2011 after the final space shuttle mission. (Image: WKMG)

After 30 years, NASA launched its final space shuttle mission. Space Shuttle Atlantis and crew launched on STS-135 from Kennedy Space Center on July 8, 2011, marking the 135th and final mission of the program.

Atlantis returned, landing on the Space Shuttle Runway on July 11, 2011. Two crew members on board that flight, astronauts Doug Hurley and Chris Ferguson, will help return human spaceflight to the U.S. now flying with Boeing and SpaceX.

Astronaut Sandy Magnus, also on STS-135, also plays an important role in the future of human spaceflight on NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, ensuring the safety of astronauts and spaceflight. Magnus is the deputy director of engineering in the office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering at the Department of Defense.

The end of the shuttle program caused major economic fallout for the Space Coast, in conjunction with the 2008 recession.

In the next story, learn about what happened after the shuttle program ended and why Americans haven’t launched from Florida’s space coast in nine years.