Ten years ago, an era ended when a space shuttle last took off from the coast of Florida. Four astronauts flew aboard Atlantis to the ISS for a 13-day mission. Since then, the troubled space shuttles have been in museums.
The iconic spacecraft came to an end on July 8, 2011 with its 135th flight. STS-135 happened with Shuttle Atlantis, the next-to-last built version of the space shuttle, of which five were eventually operational. The first flight, STS-1, took place with Columbia on April 12, 1981. In total, Columbia, Atlantis, Challenger, Endeavor and Discovery made 135 flights into space.
The Space Shuttle was an important tool in the construction of the International Space Station. Many of the largest modules went up aboard the shuttle, and the space shuttle regularly brought new astronauts to the station. The shuttle would also be used to repair satellites in orbit, which in practice only happened at the Hubble telescope. It was restored during several missions.
The Space Shuttle was an unprecedentedly complex spacecraft, but it was plagued by problems in part because of that complexity. Initially, the spaceship could return to space as a real shuttle soon after a launch, but the design became so complex due to all kinds of circumstances that a turnaround took weeks. A major problem was the loose ceramic tiles that were ‘glued’ to the bottom and acted as a heat shield. During the first test flight to space, on STS-1, these appeared to cause potential problems when it was suspected that some tiles had come loose.
Other problems were more serious and also led to two accidents. In 1986, a problem in the Solid Rocket Boosters caused Shuttle Challenger to explode after launch, killing all seven crew members. In 2003, a piece of insulation from the external fuel tank broke off during launch, causing space shuttle Columbia to disintegrate during landing. This also killed all passengers.
After the accident with Columbia, US President George W. Bush decided to accelerate the termination of the program. As a result, for years it was only possible for astronauts to travel to the ISS on Russian rockets. In the meantime, America would focus more on traditional rockets for its space travel, especially the Space Launch System, which has since been much delayed. Meanwhile, the commercial space program of, among others, SpaceX, Boeing and other companies is more successful and capsules such as the Dragon and the Cygnus have taken over many tasks from the space shuttle.
Despite its plagued missions, the Space Shuttle remains an icon of American technology and specifically space travel. The three remaining shuttles Endeavour, Atlantis and Discovery are at the California Science Center, the Kennedy Space Center and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington.