NASA's 10 Greatest Achievements

Achievement Five: the Space Shuttle, a Reusable Spacecraft (1972-2011)

The Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from Cape Kennedy in 1981.
The Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from Cape Kennedy in 1981.
Hank Morgan/Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images

In 1972, the Apollo program was winding down, and NASA was doing some technological soul-searching. The Apollo rockets were sin­gle-use spacecraft. The cost per mission was astronomical. A reusable spacecraft wouldn't only save money, but it would also be an amazing technological advance.­

After President Nixon announced the plan to build a reusable spacecraft that would run multiple, perhaps indefinite numbers of missions, NASA developed the basic design: two solid rocket boosters attached to an orbiter module and an external fuel tank.

There were considerable hurdles facing the project. Since the equipment that protected previous spacecraft from Earth's searing atmosphere essentially disintegrated during re-entry, NASA needed an entirely new heat-shield concept. It came up with a method of coating the craft with ceramic tiles that would absorb the heat without degrading. The other major redesign had to do with the landing itself. T­he old spacecraft basically plummeted through the atmosphere and splashed down in the ocean. It's tough to reuse equipment after a water landing. The new spacecraft would land more like a glider, on an actual landing strip.

It took nine years from the start of the project to the first flight. In 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off, and it was a successful mission. NASA had succeeded in creating a reusable spacecraft.

­Many of the shuttle's missions included a stay at the International Space Station (ISS), an amazing creation that at last marked a significant collaboration between the United States and Russia to advance space exploration. The ISS has surpassed all expectations and is now a true space destination, massive in size and technological capabilities. And it's not just for astronauts anymore.

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