Christening the fleet

Space ShuttleAfter several years of referring to the various Space Shuttle orbiters both under construction and in planning by numbers, NASA bestows names upon the anticipated fleet of four orbiters. OV-102, which is still expected to fly “late this year”, is named Columbia, while OV-099, undergoing conversion from a test article to flight-worthy vehicle, is named Challenger. Orbiters 103 and 104 will be named, respectively, Discovery and Atlantis; all four names are drawn from historical seafaring exploration vessels. (NASA has also used some of the names before: Columbia was the name of the moon-orbiting command module in the Apollo 11 mission, while Apollo 17’s lunar lander was named Challenger.)

Atlantis under construction

AtlantisConstruction begins on what is intended to be the fourth and final member of the current Space Shuttle fleet, Atlantis. With four orbiters in service, NASA will be one step closer to the routine, almost-weekly schedule of orbital flights envisioned in the Nixon-era mandate for the shuttle. Refinements and improvements in the process of constructing the shuttle fleet make Atlantis the lightest shuttle to date, over three tons lighter than Columbia.

Atlantis complete

AtlantisAfter four years of construction and an additional year of testing and checkout, the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolls out of the Rockwell International facility at Palmdale, California – the last of the current space shuttle fleet, to the best of anyone’s knowledge at the time. Over three tons lighter than Columbia, Atlantis doesn’t have long to wait for her first mission, lifting off for the first time in October 1985.

STS-51J: the first flight of Atlantis

Space ShuttleThe inaugural flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis takes the newest orbiter on a four-day Defense Department mission (the specifics of which remain classified). Manning Atlantis for this flight are Commander Karol Bobko, Pilot Ronald Grabe, and mission specialists David Hilmers, Robert Stewart and William Pailes.


Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on a seven-day mission of crucial importance to plans for a future space station. In addition to launching three satellites (Mexico’s MORELOS-B, RCA’s SATCOM KU-2 and AUSSAT-2 for Australia), two spacewalks in excess of five hours each are conducted, each one testing a different method of erecting large truss structures in space. Atlantis’ crew for this mission consists of Commander Brewster Shaw, Pilot Bryan O’Connor, mission specialists Mary Cleave, Sherwood Spring, Jerry Ross and payload specialists Rodolfo Neri Vela and Charles Walker.


AtlantisSpace Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on the 27th shuttle flight, a four-day mission to launch a classified Defense Department payload. The crew aboard Atlantis for this flight consists of Commander Robert Gibson, Pilot Guy Gardner, and mission specialists Richard Mullane, Jerry Ross, and William Shepherd. All other information about this flight, including launch weight and even Atlantis’ orbital altitude, remain classified to this day.

Damaged goods: Atlantis returns

STS-27 landingSpace Shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth from a classified four-day mission to deploy a payload for the Department of Defense, and on only the second flight since the Challenger disaster, most of Atlantis’ crew are surprised to return to Earth at all. During the mission, they note that Atlantis is missing numerous heat shield tiles along the vehicle’s right side and its wing – a post-landing damage survey counts over 700 missing tiles, making Atlantis the most-damaged orbiter to return safely from space. The damage had been pointed out to ground controllers by the crew, but when NASA asks permission from the Defense Department to allow the crew to send a live TV signal to Earth so engineers can survey the damage in orbit, that permission is refused. A slow-scan encrypted video system is used instead, and its low resolution doesn’t reveal the extent of the damage. The damage is believed to have been caused by insulation vibrating loose from the solid rocket booster and the external fuel tank and striking the shuttle during launch, an almost identical cause of damage that proves catastrophic to another shuttle 15 years later.


AtlantisSpace Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on a four-day mission to launch the long-delayed interplanetary probe Magellan, which is sent to Venus via an Interial Upper Stage booster module. For the first time, one of a shuttle’s five onboard computers fails and is replaced in an in-orbit repair procedure. Aboard Atlantis for this flight are Commander David Walker, Pilot Ronald Grabe, and mission specialists Norm Thagard, Mary Cleave and Mark Lee. The launch of Magellan, a mission originally conceived in 1972, marks the beginning of the first American interplanetary mission since 1977.

The People vs. Galileo?

STS-34A lawsuit, filed by environmental activists worried about the release of plutonium from the Galileo Jupiter probe’s radioisotope thermoelectric generators in the event of a Challenger-like disaster during launch, is dismissed by a federal judge; the President of the United States has also given permission for the launch to proceed (a requirement anytime a nuclear-fueled spacecraft is in the works). The suit, filed earlier in the year, sought an injunction to prevent Galileo from being launched. Times have changed since the last RTG-powered flight (the Voyager missions of the 1970s), and activists are concerned about a Chernobyl-style radioactive disaster, although the plutonium 238 at the heart of Galileo’s power supply (and that of other interplanetary probes that have used it) is non-weapons-grade and non-fissible. Galileo is slated to be launched in a week aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.


AtlantisSpace Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on a mission lasting nearly five days, whose primary goal is to lift the interplanetary probe Galileo into orbit. Originally intended for launch in late 1982, Galileo is bound for Jupiter by way of a long, looping trajectory that sends it to Venus and back to Earth multiple times, picking up speed via gravitational assist with each visit. Galileo won’t actually reach Jupiter itself until December 1995. Aboard Atlantis for this flight are Commander Donald Williams, Pilot Michael McCulley, and mission specialists Franklin Chang-Diaz, Shannon Lucid, and Ellen S. Baker.


Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on a four-day Department of Defense mission, the specifics of which remain classified. The crew consists of Commander John Creighton, Pilot John Casper, and mission specialists Richard Mullane, David Hilmers and Pierre Thuot.


Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Atlantis is launched on a mission involving a classified Defense Department payload, staying in Earth orbit for nearly five days. Atlantis’ crew on this flight consists of Commander Richard Covey, Pilot Frank Culbertson, and mission specialists Robert Springer, Carl Meade and Charles Gemar.


Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on a mission to deploy the orbiting Gamma Ray Observatory satellite. When the high-gain antenna fails to deploy on GRO, the first unplanned spacewalk since 1985 is conducted, with two of the astronauts manually releasing the antenna. Manning Atlantis for nearly six days are Commander Steven Nagel, Pilot Kenneth Cameron, and mission specialists Jerry Ross, Jay Apt and Linda Godwin.


Space ShuttleNASA launches Space Shuttle Atlantis on a satellite deployment and science mission lasting nearly nine days. The fourth TDRS (Tracking & Data Relay Satellite) is launched, and several experiments are performed on board, including materials processing experiments. Atlantis’ crew consists of Commander John Blaha, Pilot Michael Baker, and mission specialists Shannon Lucid, James Adamson and David Low.


Space ShuttleNASA launches Space Shuttle Atlantis on a mission lasting nearly a week, deploying both classified and unclassified payloads for the Defense Department. After the payload deployments, tests are conducted to determine the viability of the shuttle orbiters for long-duration missions. Manning Atlantis for this mission are Commander Frederick Gregory, Pilot Terence Henricks, and mission specialists Mario Runco, James Voss, Story Musgrave and Thomas Hennen.


STS-45NASA launches Space Shuttle Atlantis on the 46th shuttle mission, carrying the Spacelab-based ATLAS (Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science) experiment module. Aboard Atlantis for the nearly-nine-day flight are Commander Charles Bolden, Pilot Brian Duffy, Payload Commander Kathyrn Sullivan, mission specialists David Leestma and Michael Foale, and payload specialists Byron Lichtenberg and Dirk Frimout. NASA extends the mission by one day to accomodate additional experiments.


STS-46Space Shuttle Atlantis is launched on an eight-day mission to deploy two experiment packages developed jointly with the European and Italian space agencies. (The mission is extended by a day to accomodate more experiments.) Aboard Atlantis for her 12th flight are Commander Loren Shriver, Pilot Andrew Allen, mission specialists Jeffrey Hoffman, Franklin Chang-Diaz, Claude Nicollier and Marsha Ivins, and payload specialist Franco Malerba.


Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on its first flight in two years, an 11-day mission to conduct studies of Earth’s atmosphere with the ATLAS package mounted in the cargo bay. Aboard Atlantis for her 13th flight are Commander Donald McMonagle, Pilot Curtis Brown, Payload Commander Ellen Ochoa, and mission specialists Scott Parazynski, Joseph Tanner and Jean-Francois Clervoy.

Soyuz TM-21

Soyuz TM-21An American astronaut lifts off aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for the first time ever with the launch of Soyuz TM-21, a mission to the Mir space station. Cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennady Strekalov are joined by astronaut Norman Thagard aboard Mir, where they remain for 115 days. During that time, they witness the arrival of the Spektr module, a new addition to the station, and they ultimately return to Earth aboard space shuttle Atlantis in July 1995; Soyuz TM-21 remains at the station, where a future Mir crew uses it to return to Earth. During the Atlantis mission, a new record is set for the number of humans in space, as the station and shuttle crews add up to 13 people in orbit at once.

STS-71: the shuttle docks at Mir

Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on an almost-ten-day mission to dock with the Russian space station Mir. The first docking proves to be a chore, as the Mir crew has to move one of the station’s modules to a different docking port to accomodate the shuttle. The historic docking – the first joint operation between the two countries since the Apollo-Soyuz mission almost exactly 20 years earlier – results in the largest man-made object in space to date. Aboard Atlantis are Commander Robert Gibson, Pilot Charles Precourt, and mission specialists Ellen Baker, Bonnie Dunbar and Gregory Harbaugh; cosmonauts Anatoly Solovyev and Nikolai Budarin are transported to Mir aboard Atlantis to become part of Mir Expedition 19, while Expedition 18 crew members Norman Thagard, Vladimir Dezhurov and Gannady Strekalov return to Earth after more than three months aboard Mir.

STS-74: Atlantis returns to Mir

Space ShuttleNASA launches Space Shuttle Atlantis on the 73rd shuttle flight, an eight-day mission to dock with Russian space station Mir. Due to the docking difficulties of the first flight – which required Mir crew members to move one of their station’s modules out of the shuttle’s way temporarily – Atlantis carries a Russian-made docking adapter which adds a tunnel to one of Mir’s docking ports, allowing the shuttle to join up with the station without further module relocation. Atlantis carries Commander Kenneth Cameron, Pilot James Halsell, and mission specialists Jerry Ross, William McArthur and Chris Hadfield to visit Mir; there is no crew exchange on this flight.

STS-76: third Shuttle-Mir docking

Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on the 76th shuttle mission, a flight to dock with the Russian space station Mir. Supplies are delivered to Mir by the Atlantis crew, and astronaut Shannon Lucid remains aboard Mir to join its Expedition 21 crew. Atlantis also carries the SPACEHAB module, where both the shuttle and station crews conduct joint scientific experiments. Aboard Atlantis for her 16th flight are Commander Kevin Chilton, Pilot Richard Searfoss, and mission specialists Shannon Lucid, Linda Godwin, Michael Clifford and Ronald Sega.

STS-79: fourth Shuttle-Mir mission

Space ShuttleAfter multiple delays, including the entire launch stack having to be rolled back into the safety of the Vehicle Assembly Building to protect it from two back-to-back hurricanes, Space Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on the fourth mission to dock with the Russian Mir space station. Supplies are transferred to Mir, and numerous completed science experiments from Mir are loaded into the shuttle. Atlantis is flown by Commander William Readdy, Pilot Terrence Wilcutt, and mission specialists Thomas Akers, John Blaha, Jay Apt and Carl Walz. Blaha remains on Mir, taking the place of American astronaut Shannon Lucid, who has just set a new American space endurance record of 188 days in orbit; Lucid returns to Earth with the Atlantis crew.


Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on the 81st shuttle flight, a ten-day mission featuring the fifth docking between Atlantis and the Mir space station. Atlantis again carries the SPACEHAB module in its cargo bay, and thousands of pounds of consumables and equipment are transferred from the shuttle to Mir. Aboard Atlantis for her 17th flight are Commander Michael Baker, Pilot Brent Jett, and mission specialists John Grunsfeld, Marsha Ivins, Peter Wisoff and Jerry Linenger. Linenger remains on Mir, while American Mir Expedition 22 crewmember John Blaha returns after 128 days in space.

STS-84: sixth Shuttle-Mir docking

Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on the 84th shuttle mission, a ten-day flight with a visit to the Mir space station. Among the supplies hauled to Mir by Atlantis is a new oxygen generator to replace one damaged by a fire aboard the station in February. The crew for Atlantis’ 18th flight is Commander Charles Precourt, Pilot Eileen Collins, mission specialists Michael Foale, Carlos Noriega, Edward Lu, Jean-Francois Clervoy and cosmonaut Elena Kondakova. Foale remains to take up residence on Mir, while American astronaut Jerry Linenger leaves the station to return with the shuttle crew, having spent 132 days in space.