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The Space Shuttle Program - Space Shuttle Missions

nasa challenger orbiter launch

On April 12, 1981, Columbia became the first shuttle to fly into space. The flight's purpose was to test the shuttle's systems, and the mission lasted only two days. It was considered a huge success. Three more test flights were conducted during 1981 and 1982, all with the orbiter Columbia. On July 4, 1982, President Ronald Reagan TABLE 4.2 Orbiter vehicles Adapted from Orbiter Vehicles, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, February 1, 2003, (accessed January 31, 2006)announced that shuttle testing was completed. The next flight of the shuttle was to begin its operational phase.

Orbiter vehicles
Orbiter name NASA code number Date completed Date of first launch Named after Note
SOURCE: Adapted from Orbiter Vehicles, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, February 1, 2003, (accessed January 31, 2006)
Enterprise OV-101 September 1976 Not applicable The starship Enterprise in the television series "Star Trek" Used for testing only during the 1970s, never launched into space
Columbia OV-102 March 1979 April 12, 1981 A ship captained by American explorer Robert Gray during the 1790s Destroyed during reentry, February 1, 2003
Challenger OV-99 July 1982 April 4, 1983 A British Naval research vessel that sailed during the 1870s Destroyed shortly after launch, January 28, 1986
Discovery OV-103 November 1983 August 30, 1984 A ship captained by British Explorer James Cook during the 1770s First shuttle to dock with the International Space Station (1999)
Atlantis OV-104 April 1985 October 3, 1985 A research vessel used by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1966 First shuttle to dock with the Russian spacecraft Mir (1995)
Endeavour OV-105 May 1991 September 12, 1992 A ship captained by British Explorer James Cook during the 1760s Built to replace Challenger. Endeavour was the first shuttle to fly to the International Space Station (1998)

Space shuttle flights including the orbiters Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis carried out twenty-four missions before disaster struck.

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart only seventy-three seconds after lift-off. All seven crewmembers were killed, including the commander, Francis "Dick" Scobee (1939–86), the pilot, Michael Smith (1945–86), Judith Resnik (1949–86), Ronald McNair (1950–86), Ellison Onizuka (1946–86), Gregory Jarvis (1944–86), and Christa McAuliffe (1948–86). McAuliffe was a teacher who had been selected for the mission by NASA to capture the imagination of America's schoolchildren.

An investigation of the accident revealed that a faulty joint and seal in a solid rocket booster allowed hot gases to escape from the booster and ignite the hydrogen fuel. The resulting explosion tore the shuttle apart. The tragedy brought intense scrutiny and criticism of the shuttle program from government investigators.

President Reagan appointed a panel called the Rogers Commission to investigate the accident. In June 1986 the Rogers Commission issued its findings in a report that was extremely critical of NASA. The report complained that the decision to launch the Challenger was flawed due to poor communication. The managers making the launch decision did not have access to all information. For example, they were not aware that some contractor engineers were very concerned about the cold weather forecast for the morning of the launch. They feared that cold temperatures might compromise the integrity of the SRB seals. These fears were downplayed by NASA officials and not passed on to those making the launch decision.

In addition to problems specific to the Challenger accident, the Commission blamed NASA for fostering an overall culture that put schedule ahead of safety concerns. To reduce the scheduling pressure, it was decided that the shuttle would immediately cease carrying commercial satellites and phase out military missions as soon as possible. The Air Force had hoped to stage the first shuttle launch ever from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1986. The Challenger accident and the resulting decision to cease carrying military payloads put an end to these plans. The launch facilities at Vandenberg were dismantled and abandoned. Most of the equipment was transferred to NASA facilities.

A number of organizational changes were made within NASA in response to the Challenger accident. Shuttle management was moved from Johnson Space Center to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. In addition, NASA created a new office in charge of safety, reliability, and quality assurance. The entire orbiter fleet was grounded and upgraded with new equipment and systems. A new orbiter named Endeavour was built to replace Challenger. A White House committee later estimated that the shuttle disaster cost the nation approximately $12 billion. This included the cost of building a new orbiter.

Table 4.2 provides general information about each orbiter in the shuttle fleet.

The shuttle flew again on September 29, 1988, with the successful launch of Discovery thirty-two months after the Challenger accident. Space shuttles flew eighty-seven successful missions between 1988 and 2002. Then, tragedy struck again. On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry over the western United States. Seven crewmembers were killed: the commander, Rick Husband (1957–2003), the pilot, William McCool (1961–2003), David Brown (1956–2003), Kalpana Chawla (1961–2003), Michael Anderson (1959–2003), Laurel Clark (1961–2003), and Ilan Ramon (1954–2003). Ramon was a colonel from the Israeli Air Force who traveled on the shuttle as a guest payload specialist. Following the accident, the shuttle fleet was grounded for more than two years.

The Space Shuttle Program - The Columbia Accident [next] [back] The Space Shuttle Program - Space Shuttle Program Organization

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