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Space Shuttle Missions & Disasters

Instructor: Wendy McDougal

Wendy has taught high school Biology and has a master's degree in education.

The space shuttle program included five space shuttles, 135 missions and two serious disasters. It lasted over 30 years. Learn more here and take a short quiz at the end.

The Mighty Space Shuttle

Do you remember the first time you turned on the TV to watch a space shuttle lift off? You may have had a sense of awe as you watched the powerful rocket carry the shuttle far into the sky, leaving a billowing white trail behind. Over 30 years of space shuttle missions have led to exciting new discoveries, and they've given us the chance to catch a rare glimpse of our galaxy and beyond. However, space travel is a risky business, and there have been devastating losses along the way. In this lesson, learn about the successes and failures of the space shuttle program.

A New Era of Space Exploration

In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon made an announcement that would open new doors to space exploration. He declared that NASA would build a new type of craft that would revolutionize space travel, known as a space shuttle. In 1976, NASA unveiled the first of such shuttles: Enterprise, named after the popular Star Trek spacecraft. Never intended for actual space flight, it was flown both manned and unmanned as a test craft for future space shuttles.

Enterprise detaching from carrier aircraft during test flight
space shuttle Enterprise

The success of Enterprise led to the development of Columbia, the first shuttle that would carry astronauts on an orbital flight. In 1981, astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and traveled over 1 million miles. They orbited Earth an astounding 37 times in 54.5 hours. It was a triumph for the space shuttle program, proving the safety and effectiveness of this revolutionary new craft. In 1982, Columbia was used to deliver two satellites into orbit.

Space Shuttle Columbia lifting off for its first voyage
Space shuttle Columbia

Challenger and Discovery Join the Team

A year later, another space shuttle made its debut. In April of 1983, Challenger took flight. History was made that day as it carried the first woman in space, Sally Ride. Another successful mission led to many more for Challenger. In 1984, Challenger delivered astronaut Bruce McCandless into orbit to perform the first untethered space walk. It was another success for the program.

A third shuttle soon joined the fleet. Discovery would eventually make the most flights out of the five space shuttles. In 1985, Discovery took the first mission with non-professional astronauts. A Saudi prince and a U.S. senator were among the brave individuals that took a once-in-a-lifetime joyride to outer space. The year 1985 also saw the delivery of yet a fourth shuttle, Atlantis, which would eventually launch a probe to Jupiter.

Atlantis as viewed from above
space shuttle atlantis

The Challenger Explosion

These many successes soon became clouded. In 1986, a devastating accident occurred on live TV in front of millions of viewers. The majestic Challenger lifted off carrying six astronauts as well as teacher Christa McAuliffe. She was to be the first teacher in space, creating an exciting and unique opportunity to educate from orbit. Viewers watched with anticipation as the smiling individuals boarded the shuttle, only to be horrified moments later as the shuttle disintegrated into air shortly after takeoff. It was a terrible tragedy for the nation as well as the shuttle program. No space shuttle flights would occur for over two years after this accident.

The Challenger accident
Space shuttle Challenger

Turn-of-the-Century Missions

In 1990, Discovery ventured out on an important new mission. It delivered into space the Hubble Space Telescope, which became our eyes into the fascinating distant reaches of our galaxy and beyond. Shortly after the delivery of the Hubble, a fifth and final shuttle came into the picture. Endeavour took its first mission in 1992 in an attempt to rescue a non-functioning satellite, and it would eventually make 25 flights in all.

Endeavour atop an immense rocket before liftoff
Space shuttle Endeavour

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