📸 Atlantis in 2011, the final launch of a space shuttle (NASA)
During its three decades of operation, NASA's Space Shuttle program delivered 133 successful missions, beginning with Columbia's inaugural mission in 1981 and concluding with Atlantis' final flight in 2011. Missions involved many vital tasks, such as maintaining the International Space Station, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, and deploying many satellites. Scientific experiments featured heavily in the rotation, using the reusable Spacelab developed by the European Space Agency. The program was a worthy successor to the Apollo missions, heralding a new age in space exploration.
📸 Early concept art for the booster spaceplane (NASA)
The shuttle program finds its origins in the spaceplanes of the 1950s and 1960s, like North American Aviation’s X-15 and Boeing’s proposed X-20 Dyna-Soar. The idea of sending the first person into space aboard a fully recoverable craft was attractive to NASA, but as the Space Race with the Soviet Union heated up, the spaceplane concept was abandoned in favor of a cheaper and simpler traditional rocket.
The spaceplane idea proved to have staying power, however, and just a few months before Apollo 11 touched down, NASA began contracting a number of aerospace manufacturers to design a low-orbit Integrated Launch and Re-entry Vehicle (ILRV).
📸 Splashdown of recoverable solid rocket boosters
North American Rockwell ultimately won the contract in 1972 to build the orbiter vehicle, while Morton Thiokol would realize the solid rocket boosters. George Mueller, head of manned space flight at NASA, originally pitched a fully reusable orbiter that could be serviced in a matter of hours to be used by NASA and leased to other space agencies. As such, early shuttle designs featured a large booster spaceplane ferrying a smaller orbiter spaceplane to the outer atmosphere.
Once again, high costs restricted this vision, and the shuttles were instead carried into orbit by recoverable solid rocket boosters powered by liquid hydrogen and oxygen.
📸 The Star Trek cast at Enterprise's dedication
The first shuttle built was Enterprise (named for Star Trek’s USS Enterprise), an engineless test vehicle launched from a Boeing 747, meant to assess the shuttle’s re-entry capabilities. Enterprise was followed by Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, each measuring around 120 ft with an 80 ft wingspan, weighing between 150,000-175,000 pounds.
During the decades that followed, 355 astronauts of the program helped piece together the International Space Station, released and retrieved many satellites, and conducted experiments aboard the Spacelab.
📸 A CLASSIC CUTAWAY DRAWING OF THE SPACE SHUTTLE CREATED BY NASA ARTISTS IN FEBRUARY, 1981. WE DESPERATELY WANTED TO INCLUDE THIS IMAGE IN THE FOURTH EDITION COMPANION GUIDE BUT WE RAN OUT OF SPACE. (SOURCE NASA S81-30630)
📸 Columbia lifts off for STS-1, the first spaceflight mission of the shuttle program.
Columbia was the first space-worthy shuttle built, blasting off for her maiden voyage on April 12, 1981, captained by John Young of Apollo 16. Young was the only astronaut to set foot on the moon and fly on a shuttle mission—it was during his moonwalk in 1972 that mission control informed him that Congressional funding had been approved for the program. Over its subsequent missions, Columbia deployed civilian communication satellites and conducted Spacelab experiments.
On January 15, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia left Earth for its 28th mission. During launch, a piece of foam detached from the shuttle’s fuel tank and pierced the craft’s left wing. Upon their return, the intense heat of atmospheric reentry destroyed Columbia, killing all aboard. Each year, NASA holds a Day of Remembrance to honor those who lost their lives while furthering space exploration, including those aboard the Challenger and Columbia. The explosion led to a hiatus of shuttle flights and the end of the program in 2011, once the ISS had finished completion.
📸 The Challenger shuttle above Earth during STS-7, its second flight
The Space Shuttle Challenger was the second of the space shuttles in the program to enter orbit, embarking on its maiden voyage on April 4, 1983. Over the course of its ten missions, the shuttle gathered scientific data, repaired satellites, and brought the first African-American to space, Guion Bluford. However, despite Challenger’s many achievements, it is remembered in history for its tragic final flight.
On January 28, 1986, Challenger began its final flight (STS-51L), disintegrating 73 seconds after takeoff. The explosion was caused by the failure of O-ring seals in the shuttle’s rocket booster, which allowed pressurized gas to burn through to the booster's fuel tank. This horrific event ended with the deaths of all onboard crew members, which led to a brief suspension of shuttle flights and an overhaul of both the program itself and NASA's organizational structure.
📸 Rich Arnold of Discovery during STS-119 (NASA)
With a career that spanned nearly three decades from 1984 to 2011, the Space Shuttle Discovery accrued more space flights than any other craft in the program. Discovery orbited the Earth 5,830 times, traveling approximately 150 million miles. During its service, the Discovery carried the Hubble Telescope into orbit (STS-31) and took on the hundredth shuttle mission (STS-92).
Today, Discovery can be found at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Fairfax County, Virginia, not far from Mini Museum Headquarters!
📸 Endeavour in space, docked to the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. (STS-118, Source: NASA)
The Space Shuttle Endeavour was the final orbiter built, replacing the Challenger. As a cost-saving measure, much of the shuttle was built from leftover parts from the other orbiters.
Named for Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour, the shuttle’s career included the first repair mission for the Hubble Space Telescope and the addition of the Unity Module to the ISS, the first American addition to the space station. The Endeavour also flew Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space. Endeavour can now be seen at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
📸 Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center for the final time. (Source NASA KSC-2011-5842 July 21, 2011
The Space Shuttle Atlantis was the fourth of the five space shuttles used in space operations. It was also the final shuttle to be flown. Atlantis orbited Earth 4,848 times, traveling approximately 126 million miles, and carried 156 different passengers over its time in service.
During Atlantis' tenure, the craft was instrumental in sending planetary probes to Venus and Jupiter and adding modules to the ISS. Today, you can find the Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Merritt Island, Florida, not far from Launch Complex 39, the site of every shuttle launch across the program’s 30 years.
📸 Bruce McCandless performing the first untethered EVA during STS-41-B
📸 A chunk of tire material from Columbia
Exclusive Space Shuttle Material
Mini Museum is proud to offer mission-flown material from each of the 5 spaceborne shuttles!
From Discovery, a fragment of payload liner made of fire-resistant beta cloth that covered insulation and kept the payload area clean and pristine.
From Challenger, a low-temperature surface insulation tile (LRSI) that protected the orbiter from temperatures in excess of 1,200°F, removed after its sixth mission.
From Endeavour and Atlantis, pieces of insulation blankets, which helped the ships withstand the extreme increase in temperatures during atmospheric reentry and protect internal components and systems.
From Columbia, a nose landing gear tire fragment removed after the shuttle's 16th mission, as well as a a high-temperature surface insulation tile (HRSI) removed after the seventh mission.
New Space Shuttle Tire
Large sections of Shuttle Tire material are also now available in the shop! These showcase specimens come from a nose gear tire on Space Shuttle Columbia, which was removed after STS-52. Nose landing gear tires like this one were rated for up to six landings, and though usually used just twice, tire rotation was a common practice.
Several of these specimens show small metallic bands from the interior of the tire, which helped keep it strong during rough landings. Not only did the tire need to accommodate of the orbiter (upwards of 240,000 pounds), but also extreme & rapid heating due to surface friction as the craft made ground contact at speeds of up to 250 mph.
Each tire specimen comes with a certificate of authenticity and an informational photo card. You can see all the available tire pieces below!
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