For more than half a century, the people at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have captured the hearts and minds of the American people. From man’s initial voyages through Earth’s atmosphere, to the recent exploration of Pluto, NASA has continued push the limits of scientific exploration. While NASA’s accomplishments are too numerous for any blog to recount, perhaps one of the agency’s greatest feats was developing a reusable space shuttle.
The idea of a space shuttle was a radical departure from NASA’s previous space-exploratory vehicles. Unlike its predecessors, the shuttle was the first spacecraft with wings. The revolutionary shuttle was also launched by rockets and landed like a plane. Most importantly, however, the shuttle was the first reusable spacecraft. By creating a reusable ship, NASA was able to continually send astronauts into low Earth orbit, greatly enhancing our knowledge of the solar system.
Richard Nixon formally launched the Space Shuttle program on January 5, 1972. It took another nine years for engineers and scientists to successfully launch what many believed was the greatest machine ever developed. On April 12, 1981, exactly twenty years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, NASA launched Columbia from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After orbiting the Earth thirty-six times, the shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California on April 14.
For thirty years, NASA’s Shuttle program exposed the potential of human exploration, and the harsh reality of space travel. Two disasters, the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, will forever tarnish the legacy of the Space Shuttle program. Yet the vast majority of shuttle missions were successful. Between 1981 and 2011, NASA launched 135 missions, many of which helped to build and service the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station (ISS). Both the Hubble and the ISS are unquestionably two of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, all made possible by NASA’s Shuttle program.
Although the Space Shuttle program has ended, its legacy continues to live on at the National Archives. The Still Photos branch has recently processed digital photographs taken from Space Transportation System (STS) 114 through 135. These photos span from 2005 to 2011 and represent the last twenty-two missions of the Space Shuttle program. The photographs depict pre-flight procedures, shuttle launches, and shuttle landings. The National Archives also houses photos related to earlier shuttle missions and other NASA activities.
All photos from 255-ESD are now available on the National Archives Catalog.