Five Coolest Moments in the History of the Shuttle Program

As NASA's Space Shuttle program winds down -- Endeavour's final mission is slated for later this year, then that's it -- let us take a moment and remember the Shuttles. Sure, they had a tendency to explode into balls of fire. Sure, they were expensive, risky, and besieged by problems. But now is not the time for criticism: 25 years of American engineering, 132 missions, and over 20,000 orbits of this planet are nothing to shake a stick at. It is in this spirit of recognition that Universe presents a very subjective chronology of the Shuttle's greatest moments. Onward!


Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek creator, and the crew of the Starship Enterprise, visited the unveiling of the Space Shuttle Enterprise
Originally slated to be named the Constitution, the first ever test Shuttle was renamed Enterprise in response to a massive write-in campaign spearheaded by Trekkies. In 1976, when Enterprise was rolled out of its plant in Palmdale, California, Roddenberry and most of the cast of the original series of Star Trek (sans Shatner, Majel Barrett, and Grace Lee Whitney) were in attendance, and the show's theme music was played (in my mind, this is time machine destination #1). With typical meta-brilliance, Star Trek: The Motion Picture contains a scene where one captain shows another paintings of former spaceships that were named "Enterprise," the shuttle included. Kudos to NASA for recognizing the transformative, awe-inspiring power of science fiction.


NASA Shuttle astronauts repeatedly fixed the Hubble Space Telescope
As the epic new IMAX: Hubble 3D lovingly details, astronauts aboard a series of five different Shuttle missions carried out extensive work on the telescope, doing everything from installing corrective optics to replacing gyroscopes, all inordinately complex tasks when you're in the void of space and trying to unscrew dozens of tiny screws while wearing, essentially, oven mitts. The Shuttle missions to the Hubble Space Telescope repeatedly rescued the project from obsolescence, and allowed the most mind-blowing images of distant space ever recorded to be beamed down to our completely unprepared brains. We're all still reeling. Good job!


25 Years of Beautiful Mission Patches
I recognize that NASA mission patch arcana is not high on anyone's list of Shuttle highlights, but I am regardless psyched on the 132 different insignia designed by the unnamed workhorses of the NASA graphic design department, all meticulously embroidered and hand-sewn onto astronauts' jumpsuits. This attention to detail is the stuff science fiction dreams are made of, and these patches, heavy with symbolic military weirdness and aspirational political iconography, remain mini-monuments of space history.


First American Woman and first African-American in Space
Although the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space back in 1963, it wasn't until Space Shuttle Challenger hurtled skyward in 1983 that we sent our own first lady, Sally Ride, into the aether. She was quickly followed in the history books by Guion "Guy" Bluford Jr., who became the first African-American in Space aboard the Challenger mission STS-8, also in 1983. The Shuttle program in the early 1980s represented a new vision of space exploration, one which symbolically eschewed the white-male stoicism of the Apollo astronauts and focused on international, intergender, interracial collaboration on science work, a theme which has continued into the days of the International Space Station. An entire generation of kids was influenced by these overdue gestures of inclusion.


Launched the Magellan, Ulysses, and Gallileo probes
Despite the fact that the science conducted aboard the Space Station and ISS has always seemed a little wussy to me, the Shuttle did facilitate some major achievments in space science, largely by ferrying into orbit probes designed to study our solar system in detail: Magellan, which mapped the surface of Venus, Ulysses, which studied the sun and detected gamma ray bursts for 18 years, and Gallileo, which was the first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter.

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Great article. I love the shuttle. I hope the next great moment in shuttle history is when we finally ship one back up into space as a museum piece installed on a permanent space station that's used for research, exploration AND space tourism. Now that we're not spending a billion dollars a shot on learning how to operate in space, maybe now we can afford a truly economic launch system that doesn't take the same costly, archaic and inefficient measures needed for fragile human cargo but can put really space scaled payloads and the propellant to operate them into real orbits autonomously. Cheers.

Doug, that is a truly brilliant idea. I just read an article this morning about what's planned for the actual Shuttles after retirement -- nothing as cool as this!

Great article and kudos for digging back in shuttle history to the christening of Enterprise. I've just written a scifi novel about kickstarting the Singularity by stealing Enterprise from the Smithsonian - Hel's Bet - so I've got a soft spot in my heart for the prototype shuttle.

I too love mission/squadron patches. I'm former navy but spent my time working in a lab. I have a patch for VF-26 which was the bandit squad which flew A-4 skyhawks...a model I built repeatedly while growing up. I also have one for HS-3...a helicopter squad because I'm learning to fly R/C helicopters. Which has led me to a position I'm not completely comfortable with...I really think space exploration is a big deal...but I think that options such as the Mars rover should be used to their fullest use prior to sending manned teams...and then only sending people when it serves a purpose other than national ego boosting. The shuttle is cool, but I still see it as kind of a step backward after Apollo. At the same time it did serve more of a purpose than further moon missions or other attempts at manned planetary missions were going to serve.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 02 Jun 2010 #permalink

I was cruising the internet looking for something when I stumbled across this blog. I was delighted to see one of my patch designs featured on your blog. Dead center in your pile of patches sits my Dog Crew II patch. Contrary to your description, that patch wasn't designed by the NASA graphic design department, it was designed by me. It was an unofficial patch commissioned by the crew. Much to the chagrin of NASA, the crew wore the patch on their blue flight suits.