NASA’s Space Shuttle Program

NASA’s space shuttle program was originally intended to involve the use of reusable mechanical components and vehicles. This was an effort to reduce the costs of space flights and make routine launches much more cost-effective. But that scheme proved to be problematic and instead, NASA decided to redesign the shuttle with semi-reusable components. NASA’s designs which were previously very costly due to the fact that they were designed with the expendable launch system technology, whereby each vehicle was launched, then discarded after one use. In semi-reusable form, the shuttle has completed many successful missions.

Original Idea

The original idea of reaching space in vehicles that resembled airplanes rather than rockets dates to before World War II. In 1951, Collier’s printed a series of articles that popularized the possibility of manned exploration of space. The articles were the result of a collaboration between Collier’s editors and Werner von Braun, who suggested that the United States should build a permanent space station and supply it with a vehicle that looked somewhat like the eventual space shuttle. By the late 1960s, NASA began to worry about its future after the completion of the Apollo Mission.


Budgets had already peaked and there were worries about staff reductions if no new projects appeared. The space shuttle was conceived as a means to make space exploration economical. The Saturn V-rockets required by Apollo cost $185 million each, back when $185 million was a lot of money. The sum of all National Science Foundation grants at the time was around $440 million a year.  Reducing the cost of launches was an obvious objective.

During its 25 years of operations, the Space Shuttle has conducted new and innovative research which resulted in the generation of many different and new technologies. The first operational shuttle was the Columbia. Between April 21, 1981, and July 4, 1982, it performed four missions to demonstrate that the vehicle could be put into space, perform useful work, and return safely to Earth.

After the fourth landing, NASA declared the shuttle ready for operation. In July 1982, the Challenger was added to the shuttle fleet. Later additions were Discovery in 1983, Atlantis in 1985, and Endeavour in 1991. In the first three-and-a-half years of shuttle operation, only 24 flights were completed, a figure below what NASA had estimated for each year when the project began.

Nevertheless, the shuttle program accomplished a number of achievements during that period. In June 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space and two months later, Guion S. Buford Jr. became the first African-American astronaut. The first American government official to reach Space was U.S. Senator Jake Garn of Utah, who made the trip in April 1985 as a payload specialist. In January 1986, U.S. Congressman Bill Nelson flew on the Columbia, also as a payload specialist.

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