September 17, 1976 was an epic day in American history, and truly in world history as well. This was the day that the seemingly impossible became possible. Man had been in space many times by that date, but the crafts taken were disposable, and the cost to build new ones was great. It would be an amazing thing to have a craft that could take man into space, and then make a smooth landing back on Earth. It was unheard of, but it was no longer impossible.
On this day in 1976, NASA publicly unveiled its first space shuttle. The shuttle was called Enterprise, and during a ceremony in Palmdale, California, the world got its first glimpse of the future. The Space Shuttle looked like an airplane. Its development cost almost $10 billion and took nearly a decade. The shuttle would not actually fly until 1977. Enterprise became the first space shuttle to fly freely when it was lifted to a height of 25,000 feet by a Boeing 747 airplane and then released, gliding back to Edwards Air Force Base on its own accord. It was a phenomenal accomplishment. What an exciting event in NASA history!!
With the success of the first flight, came regular flights of the space shuttle, which began on April 12, 1981, with the launching of Columbia from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The shuttle had to be able to get into space, and so it was launched by two solid-rocket boosters and an external tank. These were ejected prior to the actual entrance into space, and only the shuttle, which looked like an actual airplane, entered into orbit around Earth. When the two-day mission was completed, the shuttle fired its engines to reduce speed and, after descending through the atmosphere, landed like a glider at California’s Air Force Base…brought to a stop with the help of three parachutes.
Early shuttles took satellite equipment into space and carried out various scientific experiments. On January 28, 1986, NASA and the space shuttle program suffered a major setback when the Challenger exploded 74 seconds after takeoff and all seven people aboard were killed. That was a horrible day in shuttle history. After changing the things that caused the problem, the shuttle flew again beginning in September 1988, when Discovery went up successfully. Since then, the space shuttle has carried out numerous important missions, such as the repair and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction and manning of the International Space Station. A tragedy in space again rocked the nation on February 1, 2003, when Columbia, on its 28th mission, disintegrated during re-entry of the earth’s atmosphere. All seven astronauts aboard were killed. In the aftermath, the space-shuttle program was grounded until Discovery returned to space in July 2005, amid concerns that the problems that had downed Columbia had not yet been fully solved. On July 21, 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the final time, at the end of STS-135, with the official retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet taking place from March to July 2011.