The Space Shuttle Discovery is the back drop as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence chairs the 6th meeting of the National Space Council on “Leading the Next Frontier” at the National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Aug. 20, 2019, in Chantilly, Virginia. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images).

Space exploration has advanced extensively since the successful Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969. In order to make it safer for human passengers, however, NASA had to invent new rockets to send astronauts to outer space. On September 17, 1976, NASA publicly unveiled the first-ever space shuttle, the Enterprise, during a ceremony in Palmdale, California. It took nearly a decade for NASA engineers to develop the shuttle, but once it was invented, it forever changed how astronauts could “blast off” to outer space.

The first shuttle missions

It cost NASA almost $10 billion to develop the aircraft-like spacecraft. Following the unveiling, the Enterprise became the first space shuttle to fly freely when it flew to a height of 25,000 feet by a Boeing 747 airplane and then it released, gliding back to Edwards Air Force Base. Then, regular flights of the space shuttle began on April 12, 1981, with the Columbia launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Only the shuttle entered Earth’s orbit after the two solid-rocket boosters and an external tank fell away. After the mission, the shuttle fired engines to reduce its speed and finally descended back through the atmosphere.

Performing scientific experiments

The space shuttles were successful in taking satellite equipment into outer space and carried out various scientific experiments. Shuttle programs were running smoothly until January 28, 1986, when NASA and the space shuttle program suffered a tragic loss when the Challenger exploded 74 seconds after takeoff, killing all seven crew members, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. NASA suffered a major setback following the explosion.

Getting back on track

Following the tragedy, NASA’s space shuttle flights resumed in September 1988 with the Discovery. Since then, shuttle missions successfully completed various assignments, including repairing and performing maintenance work on the Hubble Space Telescope. They also constructed and manned the International Space Station, first launched in 1998.

Unfortunately, NASA’s space shuttle program suffered another tragedy on February 1, 2003, when Columbia exploded upon its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members. The program was grounded until Discovery returned to outer space in 2005. Even though it was a successful mission, people were concerned following the tragedies of the Challenger and Columbia missions. Luckily, NASA has been safe of tragedies for over 15 years.