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Shuttle Milestones
September 1969
Space Task Group recommends "development of a new space transportation capability..."
January 1972
President Nixon announces development of low cost reusable space shuttle system.
March 1972
Rockwell Rocketdyne Division selected to design and develop main engines.
July 1972
Rockwell Space Transportation Systems selected to design and develop orbiter.
August 1973
Martin Marietta awarded external tank contract.
June 1974
Morton Thoikol awarded contract for solid rocket boosters.
September 1976
Enterprise, the first orbiter spacecraft is rolled out. Test vehicle is never flown in space.
January 1979
Rockwell contracted to manufacture two additional orbiters – Discovery and Atlantis.
March 1979
The Columbia orbiter is delivered to Kennedy Space Center.
April 1979
Enterprise is mated with external tank and solid rocket boosters for test purposes.
April 1981
Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off and is the first orbiter in space (STS-1).
July 1982
The Challenger orbiter is delivered to Kennedy Space Center.
October 1983
Lockheed Space Operations awarded contract for shuttle processing at Kennedy Space Center.
November 1983
The Discovery orbiter is delivered to Kennedy Space Center.
April 1985
The Atlantis orbiter is delivered to Kennedy Space Center.
January 1986
Shuttle Challenger explodes and crew perishes 73 seconds after liftoff.
September 1988
Discovery lifts off marking return to flight status of Shuttle Program.
October 2000 (planned)
Space Shuttle makes 100th spaceflight
IMAGE: Mission Basics

Space Shuttle Basics

Space Shuttle History

IMAGE: Space Shuttle Program InsigniaIn September 1969, two months after the first manned lunar landing, a Space Task Group appointed by the President of the United States to study the future course of U.S. space research and exploration made the recommendation that "…the United States accept the basic goal of a balanced manned and unmanned space program. To achieve this goal, the United States should …develop new systems of technology for space operation…through a program directed initially toward development of a new space transportation capability…"

In early 1970, NASA initiated extensive engineering, design, and cost studies of a space shuttle. These studies covered a wide variety of concepts ranging from a fully reusable manned booster and orbiter to dual strap-on solid propellant rocket motors and an expendable liquid propellant tank. Each concept evaluated development risks and costs in relation to the suitability and the overall economics of the entire system.

IMAGE: Approach and landing tests
The Shuttle Enterprise separates from the 747 shuttle carrier aircraft during the approach and landing tests.

On January 5, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon announced that NASA would proceed with the development of a reusable low cost space shuttle system. NASA and its aerospace industry contractors continued engineering studies through January and February of 1972; finally on March 15, 1972, NASA announced that the shuttle would use two solid propellant rocket motors. The decision was based on information developed by studies that showed that the solid rocket system offered lower development cost and lower technical risk.

On September 17, 1976, the first orbiter spacecraft, Enterprise, was rolled out. A total of thirteen test flights were performed. The Enterprise was built as a test vehicle and not equipped for space flight.

Five captive flights, with the Enterprise perched atop a 747 jumbo jet with no crew and unpowered, were conducted to test the structural integrity of the craft. Three crewed captive flights followed with the crew operating the flight control systems in preparation for the first orbiter free flight. Finally, five free flights occurred with an astronaut crew separating the orbiter from the 747 shuttle carrier and maneuvering to a landing at Edwards Air Force Base.

IMAGE: First space shuttle launch

Lift off of Columbia at 7:00 a.m. April 12, 1981; the first space shuttle mission.

For all of the captive flights and the first three free flights, the orbiter was outfitted with a tail cone covering its aft section to reduce aerodynamic drag and turbulence. The final two free flights were made without the tail cone, and the three simulated space shuttle main engines and two orbital maneuvering system engines were exposed aerodynamically.

After numerous tests across the United States, the Enterprise was ferried across the Atlantic for several air shows across Europe. Finally, on November 18, 1985, the Enterprise was ferried from Kennedy Space Center to Washington, D.C. and became the property of the Smithsonian Institution.

The second orbiter, Columbia, was the first to fly into space. Perched atop the 747 shuttle carrier, Columbia arrived at Kennedy Space Center from Dryden Flight Research Facility on March 25, 1979 to be readied for the space shuttle's first flight on April 12, 1981.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 02/27/2008
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