NASA's 10 Greatest Achievements

The Space Shuttle, a Reusable Spacecraft
The space shuttle Atlantis touches down at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility Oct. 6, 1997. Atlantis was one of four space shuttles that served NASA between 1981 and 2011. NASA

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, well, astronomical. A reusable spacecraft would not only save money, but it would also be an amazing technological advance.

After President Richard 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 its maiden mission was successful. NASA had succeeded in creating a reusable spacecraft.

Columbia was followed by four other space shuttles: Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. From 1981 through 2011, this quintet flew a combined 135 missions, with many involving stays at the International Space Station(ISS) [source: NASA].

An amazing collaborative effort, the ISS was made to advance space exploration. Now let's return to the early days of that noble pursuit for a story about the first people who ever laid eye upon the far side of the moon...  

More to Explore