Space shuttle timeline

  • 1977 Test flight
  • 1981 First launch
  • 1983 Spacewalk
  • 1983 US spacewoman
  • 1984 Untethered spacewalk
  • 1986 Challenger disaster
  • 1988 Return to flight
  • 1989 Magellan launched
  • 1990 Hubble telescope
  • 1993 Hubble repaired
  • 1995 Shuttle-Mir docking
  • 1998 Oldest man in space
  • 1998 ISS mission begins
  • 2003 Columbia disaster
  • 2004 Beginning
    of the end
  • 2005 Return to flight
  • 2007 Teacher in space
  • 2008 Columbus lab
  • 2011 Discovery's last flight
  • 2011 Endeavour's last flight
  • 2011 The final flight
  • Test flight

    The space shuttle was conceived as a concept long before man had even stepped on to the Moon. Its development seemed to many the stuff of science fiction made real. The test orbiter, Enterprise, even had a name taken from the Star Trek TV series.

  • First launch

    When Columbia made the inaugural launch, she was manned by astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen. Even today that seems daring - that they should climb aboard a vehicle that had not first been sent on an unmanned test mission.

  • Spacewalk

    Challenger, the second shuttle, was the first to conduct a spacewalk. With two machines Nasa now had a fleet of re-usable spaceplanes. They would change the way humans would live and work in space. Large payloads could be taken into orbit - even retrieved and returned safely to Earth.

  • Spacewoman

    The multi-seat shuttle meant many more people could go into space than had been the case with Nasa's earlier capsule designs. Many non-military personnel were called up, including physicist Sally Ride - the first American woman to go into space.

  • Untethered spacewalk

    Shuttle missions provided some iconic moments. Bruce McCandless hanging in space above a blue globe is surely one of the most majestic. McCandless was testing the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a device that enabled un-tethered spacewalks.

  • Challenger disaster

    Challenger's destruction 72 seconds into its mission punctured the notion that space flight had become routine. An investigation concluded that the seal on a rocket booster had failed, leading to the shuttle's disintegration. Among the seven astronauts lost was Christa McAuliffe, who was to become the first US civilian in space.

  • Return to flight

    Twice Discovery would be called upon to return the orbiters to active service following a major accident. The first return to flight mission saw astronauts wear their familiar pressurised Launch Escape, or "pumpkin", suits for the first time.

  • Magellan launched

    Magellan was the first planetary mission to be launched by an orbiter. It was despatched to Venus to make a radar map of its surface. In the years ahead the shuttle would launch a range of science probes and telescopes.

  • Hubble telescope

    The shuttle would have a recurring association with the Hubble Space Telescope. The astronomical facility would transform our knowledge of the cosmos, but without the regular servicing from orbiter astronauts the HST would never have lasted as long.

  • Hubble repaired

    The most important of those re-visits was made by Endeavour within four years of the original launch. The shuttle carried up the equipment that would correct Hubble's flawed vision. The telescope became one of the best showcases for the shuttle.

  • Shuttle-Mir docking

    Before the International Space Station there was Mir, the Russian platform. The lessons learned from the 11 orbiter flights to Mir would pave the way for the ISS and the concept of a station project operated by multiple partners.

  • Oldest man in space

    John Glenn was America's first orbiting astronaut in 1962. His flight on Discovery in 1998 made him not only the oldest person to fly in space at the age of 77, but the only one to have flown in both the Mercury and Space shuttle programmes.

  • ISS mission begins

    Russia began the construction of the ISS, a $100bn (£62bn) project that would take more than 10 years to complete. Some 36 shuttle flights would follow Endeavour's delivery of the first US component - a connecting module called Unity.

  • Columbia disaster

    Columbia's loss underlined once again the vulnerabilities in the shuttle transportation system's design. Insulation foam falling off the external tank on lift-off had damaged the ship's left wing. The hot gases encountered on re-entry penetrated the hole and tore Columbia apart.

  • Beginning of the end

    Shuttle safety was now a pressing issue. George W Bush signalled the fleet's retirement, and suggested a replacement transport system be developed to take astronauts back to the Moon. His Constellation project would be cancelled by his successor, however.

    In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service. President George W Bush

    Start Quote

    In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service.”

    End Quote President George W Bush 14 January 2004
  • Return to flight

    When Eileen Collins and her crew took Discovery back into space, a series of modifications had been introduced to the shuttle and its operation. This included the introduction of a back-flip manoeuvre at the ISS, to allow for a photo inspection of the orbiter's heatshield.

  • Teacher in space

    Barbara Morgan was the back-up to Christa McAuliffe in 1986. A teacher by profession, she later joined Nasa's astronaut corps as a mission specialist. Twenty-one years after the Challenger accident, she finally got her chance to go into space.

  • Columbus lab

    The Columbus space lab was Europe's largest contribution to the International Space Station to date. Designed to stay in space permanently, the 12.8-tonne Columbus module was plucked from its berth in Atlantis's bay by the station's robotic arm.

  • Discovery's last flight

    Space shuttle Discovery was regarded as the "leader of the fleet". She conducted both the "return to flight missions" following Challenger and Columbia. She also flew more missions, 39, than any of the other orbiters.

  • Endeavour's last flight

    The space station could not have been built without the space shuttle. Remarkably, though, it was not until the penultimate flight of the programme that everyone got to see a close-up image of a shuttle actually docked to the orbiting outpost.

  • The final flight

    The 135th and final shuttle mission saw Atlantis ferry 3.5 tonnes of supplies to the International Space Station. The 26-year-old craft landed at dawn at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on 21 July 2011, closing the shuttle programme.

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