AIR SPACE

Three Decades of the Space Shuttle

Aboard the space shuttles, the United States has toured the heavens. Here, a selection of our favorite pictures of the shuttle, from the early prototypes in the 70s to today.

NASA 01

The space shuttle Atlantis rolls out to Launch Pad 39A in preparation for its final launch in July. The flight marks the end of NASA's storied space shuttle program.

collectSPACE.com/Robert Z. Pearlman

First Shuttle Launch, 1981

On April 12, 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia became the first shuttle to orbit the Earth. Here, flood lights play on the Columbia and service structures (left) as it rests atop Complex 39's Pad A at Kennedy Space Center in preparation for first launch. Flown by Commander John W. Young and Pilot Robert L. Crippen, Columbia spent two days aloft on its check-out mission, STS-1, which ended in a smooth landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

NASA

Horizon

A beautiful picture of Earth's horizon behind the tail of shuttle Atlantis during the 1992 mission dedicated to the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science.

NASA

Aurora From Endeavour

Canada's shuttle robot arm and the Space Radar Laboratory are lit up by brilliant green aurora during a 1994 mission aboard Endeavour.

NASA

First Launch

The Space Shuttle rises majestically above Launch Complex 39's Pad A on the first leg of its maiden journey into space. On board for the historic flight are astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen, scheduled to spend nearly 54 hours in space on this first shakedown test of Americas's new reusable Space Transportation System (STS). The Sunday morning liftoff came a few seconds after 7:00 a.m.

NASA

Shuttle by Sunset

Dramatically reflected by the waters adjacent to Launch Pad A, the Space Shuttle is lit by spotlights and the setting sun on the evening prior to Flight Readiness Firing of the orbiter Columbia's main engines, in 1981. The 20-second firing was a milestone procedure in flight preparation of the world's first reusable space vehicle.

NASA

Landing at Edwards AFB

The STS-29 Space Shuttle Discovery mission approaches for a landing at Edwards AFB, California, early Saturday morning, March 18, 1989. Controllers chose the concrete runway for the landing in order to make tests of braking and nosewheel steering. The STS-29 mission was very successful, completing the launch a Tracking and Data Relay communications satellite, as well as a range of scientific experiments.

NASA

Walking Through Space

Mission Specialist Bruce McCandless II, is seen further away from the confines and safety of his ship than any previous astronaut has ever been, in February of 1984. This space first was made possible by the Manned Manuevering Unit or MMU, a nitrogen jet propelled backpack. After a series of test maneuvers inside and above Challenger's payload bay, McCandless went "free-flying" to a distance of 320 feet away from the Orbiter.

NASA

Enterprise Prototype

The Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise flies free after being released from NASA's 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) over Rogers Dry Lake during the second of five free flights carried out at the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California, as part of the Shuttle program's Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) in 1977.

NASA

NASA 02

Space shuttle Atlantis, attached to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters atop a mobile launcher platform, slowly inches out of the Vehicle Assembly Building for the final time, on May 31, 2011.

NASA/Gianni Woods

NASA 03

In the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, shuttle Atlantis is lowered toward the mobile launcher platform where it will be joined with its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters on May 18, 2011. Atlantis will launch on NASA's final shuttle mission on July 8.

NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

NASA 05

In the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, shuttle Atlantis is lifted by an overhead crane and moved into a high bay where it will be attached to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters which are already on the mobile launcher platform. NASA plans to launch Atlantis on the STS-135 mission in mid-July 2011.

NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

Rocketing

Before NASA launches a Space Shuttle, its systems must be put through critical tests on the ground to their flight readiness. The three main engines are critical components of the Space Shuttle. All main engines are tested at Stennis Space Center before being flown on the orbiter.

NASA

Race to the Heavens

Columbia, 184 feet long with a 78 foot wingspan, is launched mated to an external fuel tank and two solid rocket boosters producing dramatic exhaust plumes. The solid rocket boosters, one on each side of the external tank, provide most of the thrust in the first 2 minutes after launch and are then jettisoned for later recovery. This image comes from the November 12, 1981 launch.

NASA

Piggyback Ride

The Space Shuttle Endeavour rests atop NASA's Shuttle Carrier Aircraft in the Mate-Demate Device (MDD) at the Ames-Dryden Flight Research Facility, Edwards, California, shortly before being ferried back to the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Endeavour landed at 1:57 p.m. (PDT) May 16, 1992, marking the completion of the new orbiter's first mission in space.

NASA

Flight Before Sunset

Just before sunset, Space Shuttle Endeavour lifts off Launch Pad 39B at 5:19:28 p.m. EST on mission STS-108. At left can be seen one of the six 12-foot-high rainbirds circling the Shuttle on the mobile launcher platform. Part of the sound suppression system, when solid rocket booster ignition and liftoff occur, a torrent of water flows onto the MLP from the rainbirds.

NASA

Double Shuttle

A rare rain allowed this reflection of the Space Shuttle Columbia as it was towed 16 Nov. 1982, to the Shuttle Processing Area at NASA's Ames-Dryden Flight Research Facility (from 1976 to 1981 and after 1994, the Dryden Flight Research Center), Edwards, California, following its fifth flight in space.

NASA

Columbia Soars Into Orbit

Aerial views of the STS-2 launch from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. This photograph of Columbia soaring toward earth orbit was captured by Mission- Specialist/Astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan from the rear station of a T-38 jet aircraft. Part of the wing top of her aircraft can be seen in the lower left corner. Another T-38 jet can be seen at lower left corner near the smoke trails from the Shuttle.

NASA

Endeavour Touches Down

The Space Shuttle orbiter Endeavour and its crew of six glide in to Runway 15 at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility after spending nine days in space on the STS-72 mission, the first Shuttle flight of 1996. Highlights of the mission were the retrieval of the Japanese Space Flyer Unit (SFU), the deployment and retrieval of NASA's Office of Aeronauts and Space Technology-Flyer (OAST-Flyer), and two Extravehicular Activities (EVA's) or spacewalks.

NASA

Cosmic View

A crescent Moon appears above Earth's horizon and the cargo bay doors of shuttle Columbia during the 1983 mission that featured the first Spacelab.

NASA

Endeavour's Cargo Bay

Endeavour's cargo bay as it looked just before the 60-foot- long doors were opened for the first time in space during its 1992 maiden voyage.

NASA

Shuttle Duty

The shuttle serving one its most fundamental purposes -- ferrying cargo and crews to and from an orbiting space station.

NASA

Discovery

The scene looking back through Discovery's flight deck window during STS-51, a 1993 mission to deploy the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite.

NASA

Final Days of Atlantis

Atlantis rests before its final mission.

NASA/Jack Pfaller

Discovery Journeys Home

The space shuttle Discovery is seen from the International Space Station as the two orbital spacecraft accomplish their relative separation on March 7. During a post undocking fly-around, the crew of each vessel photographed the opposing craft.

NASA

Three Decades of the Space Shuttle

Aboard the space shuttles, the United States has toured the heavens. Here, a selection of our favorite pictures of the shuttle, from the early prototypes in the 70s to today.

More From Our Sponsors