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.