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Thirty Years of the Space Shuttle Program

Recognizing Humanity's Most Magnificent Machine

12 April 2011
Image showing space snapshots that says Great Shots Blog, iconic images from our solar system.
On 12 April 1981, thirty years ago, the Space Shuttle Columbia became the first shuttle to orbit the Earth. Flown by Commander John W. Young and Pilot Robert L. Crippen, Columbia spent two days aloft on its checkout mission, STS-1, which ended in a smooth landing, airplane-style, at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Columbia was launched again seven months later on STS-2, becoming the first piloted reuseable orbiter.

Today also marks the 50th anniversary of the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin.

With the Space Shuttle program winding down, here's a look back at some of the highlights (11 images total):


Color image of the Space Shuttle Columbia illuminated by spotlights.
In this gorgeous time exposure, flood lights play on the Columbia and service structures (left) as it is prepared for the historic first launch. Flown by Commander John W. Young and Pilot Robert L. Crippen, Columbia spent two days aloft on its check-out mission, STS-1, which ended in a smooth landing, airplane-style, at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Columbia was launched again seven months later on STS-2, becoming the first piloted reuseable orbiter. Columbia and her crew were lost in 2003 when the orbiter broke up on re-entry.


Color image of the Space Shuttle with a full moon in the background.
Shortly before dawn, a red-rimmed moon helps to light the way for the Space Shuttle Atlantis as it rolls out to Launch Pad 39A in preparation for launch of Mission STS-86, a 1997 mission to rendezvous with the Mir space station.


Color image showing the limb of the Earth, the Moon and the tail of the Space Shuttle.
Billows of smoke and the water near Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida capture the brilliant light of Space Shuttle Discovery's lift-off on the STS-119 mission in 2009.


Color image of Space Shuttle Endeavour launching.
July 2009: Billows of smoke and steam infused with the fiery light from Space Shuttle Endeavour's launch on the STS-127 mission fill NASA Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A.


Color image of the Space Shuttle in Earth orbit pointing nose first at the camera.
A view photographed from the International Space Station in 2007 shows the Space Shuttle Atlantis backdropped over terrain as the two spacecraft were nearing their much-anticipated link-up in Earth orbit.


Color image of two astronauts in the Space Shuttle.
Astronauts Eileen M. Collins, mission commander; and Jeffrey S. Ashby, pilot, peruse checklists on Columbia's middeck in 1999. Collins and Ashby were joined by three mission specialists for almost five days in Earth orbit. The busiest of those days was the first, during which they released into space the world's most powerful X-Ray telescope and initiated a number of in-cabin experiments.


Color image showing the limb of the Earth, the Moon and the tail of the Space Shuttle.
The moon is framed between the Orbiter's OMS pod and the Earth limb over the Atlantic Ocean as seen from the aft windows onboard Discovery on mission STS-95 in 1998.


Color image showing the limb of the Earth, the Moon and the tail of the Space Shuttle.
How does a Space Shuttle that landed in California get back to Florida for its next launch? The answer is by ferry.

NASA operates two commercial Boeing 747 airplanes modified to carry a space shuttle on their backs. Designated officially as Shuttle Carrier Aircraft or SCA, NASA bolstered the commercial 747s with struts, stabilizers and electronic monitors. Pictured above, the space shuttle Atlantis is shown being ferried to NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida in September 1998.


Color image showing the limb of the Earth, the Moon and the tail of the Space Shuttle.
Though it's 93 million miles away, the Sun still hurts your eyes when you look at it. But bright sunlight (along with accurate planning and proper equipment!) resulted in this sharp silhouette of spaceship and space station.

The amazing telescopic view, recorded in September 2006, captures the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station in orbit over planet Earth. At a range of 550 kilometers from the observing site near Mamers, Normandy, France, Atlantis (left) has just undocked and moved about 200 meters away from the space station. Image Credit and Copyright: Thierry Legault


Color image of the Moon rising above Earth's atmosphere.
A quarter moon is visible in this oblique view of Earth's horizon and airglow, recorded with a digital still camera on the final mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Columbia's crew was killed on Feb. 1, 2003 when the shuttle broke up on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.


Cartoon Illustration showing a boy and his dog running along side the Space Shuttle as it lands.
As a tribute to NASA's Space Shuttle Program, artist Brian Basset created this commemorative drawing depicting his characters, Red and Rover, racing alongside the Space Shuttle as it lands for the final time later this year. In 2004, Basset was honored with a one-man show of his space-themed comic strips at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. On July 26, 2005, an original drawing by Basset commemorating America's return to flight launched aboard shuttle Discovery on the STS-114 mission.

Basset created the strip in 2000 about a boy and his dog, who dream of one day going into space. Twice nominated by the National Cartoonists Society for Best Comic Strip of the Year in 2003 and 2010, Red and Rover appears in more than 160 newspapers worldwide and is syndicated by Universal Uclick. Previously, Basset worked as an editorial cartoonist for The Seattle Times.

Image Credit: Brian Basset (used by the author's permission)

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Last Updated: 11 Apr 2011