For many years NASA wondered about the possibility of designing a spacecraft that could be used more than once. Many designs were tried and tested until eventually the Space Shuttle design was selected.
The first Space Shuttle was launched in April 1981 with the last shuttle flight due to take place in February 2011. All shuttle missions launch from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
Each Space Shuttle is made up of three main parts. The main body of the ship is completely re-usable. The large orange fuel tank is designed to burn up in the earth’s atmosphere and the two smaller rockets are designed to return to earth by parachute and be re-used.
The shuttle is launched vertically just like other rockets but it returns to earth by gliding like an airplane. Because the shuttle drops from such a great height and travels at such a high speed there are only a few airports in the world capable of allowing a shuttle to land. In Ireland Shannon Airport is listed as a possible landing site but has never been used.
Most shuttles land at Kennedy Space Centre but if a shuttle does land at an airstrip somewhere in else in the world it has to get a “piggy-back” home to Florida. The space shuttle unfortunately is not designed to fly in our atmosphere without its rockets attached. It is instead attached to a 747 Jumbo airplane and flown back to Florida.
Six shuttles have been built. The first was called Enterprise and was not built to fly to space. It was used to test the take-off and landing of shuttles. The others all travelled to space.
Columbia: This was the first shuttle to travel into space. It launched in April 1981 and flew 27 missions. In 2003 the space shuttle Columbia broke apart as it was re-entering earth’s atmosphere, killing all astronauts on board.
Challenger: It launched in April 1983 and flew 10 missions. The first shuttle spacewalk took place from Challenger. In 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch killing all 7 astronauts on board.
Discovery: It was launched for the first time in 1984 and it is due to take its final journey in December 2010 which will be its 39th mission. It was the shuttle which placed the Hubble telescope in orbit and is the oldest of all the shuttles still operating.
Atlantis: It was launched for the first time in October 1985 and has just completed its final mission. In the 25 years it had been flying it covered a distance of 115 million miles.
Endeavour: This shuttle was first launched in May 1992 and will have the honour of taking the last ever shuttle journey scheduled fro February 2011. It will deliver parts to the International Space Station. It will have completed 25 missions at that time. Endeavour was built as a replacement for Challenger and cost about €1.2 billion. One Space Shuttle launch costs around €350 million. In all the years the shuttles have been travelling it is estimated to have cost over €125 billion.