ColumbiaReturning to space after nearly a year of refits, Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off on the long-delayed first manned mission of the Spacelab laboratory module, which is installed in the cargo bay. (The nearly month-long delay was the result of a solid rocket booster issue that led to the first-ever return of the shuttle from the launch pad to the Vehicle Assembly Building.) The ten-day mission also boasts the first six-person shuttle crew, featuring the first Spacelab scientists from the European Space Agency, who have been training for this mission since the 1970s. Columbia’s crew includes Commander John Young, Pilot Brewster Shaw, mission specialists Owen Garriott and Robert Parker, and ESA payload specialists Byron Lichtenberg and Ulf Merbold.


ChallengerSpace Shuttle Challenger lifts off on a satellite delivery mission, but the launches of both satellites go awry when their boosters (the Payload Assist Modules designed to launch satellites from the shuttle) put them in the wrong orbits. A German satellite is retrieved, repaired, and placed back into its orbit. A few days after launch, a member of Challenger’s crew will become the first free-floating human satellite. On this flight, Challenger’s crew consists of Commander Vance Brand, Pilot Robert Gibson, mission specialists Bruce McCandless, Ronald McNair and Robert Stewart. This is the first shuttle flight to end on the runway at Kennedy Space Center, eliminating the need for a costly, time-consuming 747 ferry flight to retrieve the shuttle from Edwards Air Force Base.

Manned Maneuvering Unit

Manned Maneuvering UnitAstronaut Bruce McCandless becomes the first untethered human spacewalker when he leaves the cargo bay of Space Shuttle Challenger aboard a Manned Maneuvering Unit, a jetpack-like device allowing him to maneuver freely with no hoses or cables connecting him to the shuttle. In development since the Gemini era, and tested briefly aboard Skylab in prototype form, the MMU will see use on only three missions before NASA puts it in mothballs.


ChallengerSpace Shuttle Challenger lifts off on the first mission to retrieve a satellite in orbit, repair it, and release it back into that orbit. Launched in 1980, prior to the first shuttle mission, the Solar Maximum (Solar Max) Satellite is outfitted with a mechanism to allow the shuttle’s remote manipulator arm to grasp it; however, two astronauts using Manned Maneuvering Units still have to nudge it into Challenger’s cargo bay. With repairs completed, Solar Max is returned to its orbit, where it lasts until 1989. Challenger’s crew on this flight consists of Commander Bob Crippen, Pilot Francis Scobee, and mission specialists Geroge Nelson, James Van Hoften and Terry Hart.

STS-41D: Discovery’s debut

DiscoverySpace Shuttle Discovery makes its first flight into space on a mission to deploy three commercial communications satellites. Tested on this flight is a huge solar power panel which unfolds vertically from Discovery’s cargo bay, testing technology for space station designs still on the drawing board. Discovery’s crew for this flight consists of Commander Henry Hartsfield, Pilot Michael Coats, mission specialists Judy Resnick, Steven Hawley, Mike Mullane, and payload specialist Charles Walker.


ChallengerSpace Shuttle Challenger lifts off on an eight-day mission, the first shuttle mission with a seven-person crew, which also happens to be the first American shuttle crew with two women on board. A satellite to study radiation around the Earth is deployed, along with an experiment to study the feasibility of refueling empty satellites to extend their service life. Challenger’s crew for this flight consists of Commander Robert Crippen, Pilot Jon McBride, mission specialists Kathryn Sullivan, Sally Ride, David Leestma and payload specialists Marc Garneau and Paul Scully-Power.


DiscoverySpace Shuttle Discovery takes off on a week-long satellite deployment mission, delivering a Canadian communications satellite and another American SYNCOM defense communications satellite into orbit. Using the MMU jet packs, Discovery’s crew retrieve two satellites placed into the wrong orbits by malfunctioning boosters after a shuttle mission earlier in the year, returning them to the cargo bay for return to Earth. Discovery’s crew consists of Commander Frederick Hauck, Pilot David Walker, and mission specialists Anna Fisher, Dale Gardner, and Joseph Allen.


DiscoverySpace Shuttle Discovery lifts off on the shortest shuttle flight since the 1981 test flights, lasting only three days. A classified Defense Department payload is delivered to orbit, with the help of the first Inertial Upper Stage booster developed by the U.S. Air Force. This mission is the first time that shuttles had to be swapped out prior to flight – thermal tile issues on Challenger prevented that shuttle from being used for this mission – as well as the first instance of a shuttle launch scrubbed because of concerns over freezing weather and ice at the launch site. Discovery returns via the Kennedy Space Center runway, with Commander Ken Mattingly, Pilot Loren Shriver, mission specialists Ellison Onizuka and James Buchli, and payload specialist Gary Payton aboard.

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.


DiscoveryAfter a month of delays due to damage and a change in the flight schedule, Space Shuttle Discovery returns to orbit for a week-long flight. A Canadian communications satellite and the LEASAT-3 satellite are redeployed, but LEASAT continues to malfunction despite multiple attempts to active and launch it. Discovery’s crew on this flight consists of Commander Karol Bobko, Pilot Donald Williams, mission specialists Rhea Seddon, Jeffrey Hoffman and David Griggs, and payload specialists Charles Walker and Senator Jake Garn, the first member of the U.S. Congress to fly in space while in office. This flight’s return to the runway at Kennedy Space Center marks the first time a shuttle orbiter experiences significant damage upon landing, including a blowout of one of its landing gear wheels.


ChallengerSpace Shuttle Challenger lifts off on a week-long mission to perform experiments in the cargo-bay-mounted Spacelab laboratory module. Aboard Challenger for the Spacelab 3 flight are Commander Robert Overmyer, Pilot Frederick Gregory, mission specialists Don Lind, Norm Thagard, and William Thornton, and payload specialists Lodewijk van den Berg and Taylor Wang. Following the landing gear damage experienced by Discovery on its last flight, Challenger makes its landing at Edwards Air Force Base.


DiscoverySpace Shuttle Discovery returns to orbit for a week-long flight including the deployment of three communications satellites. American, Mexican and Saudi Arabian satellites are launched via payload assist modules. Discovery crew consists of Commander Daniel Brandenstein, Pilot John Creighton, mission specialists Shannon Lucid, John Fabian and Steven Nagel, and payload specialists Patrick Baudry and Sultan Salman Al-Saud (the first Saudi Arabian national to fly in space).

STS-51F: Challenger aborts to orbit

ChallengerFor the first and only time in the history of the shuttle program, Space Shuttle Challenger does an in-flight abort maneuver – in this case, an Abort To Orbit (ATO) following the premature shutdown of one of the shuttle’s main engines. The potentially catastrophic shutdown of a second engine is narrowly avoided by a sharp-eyed ground controller, and Challenger makes it to orbit and the rest of the mission is conducted normally.

More about Shuttle abort modes in Scribblings


Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Discovery lifts off on a mission to deliver three communications satellites to orbit. The triple payload includes SYNCOM IV-4, the Australian AUSSAT-1 satellite, and American Satellite Company’s ASC-1. Discovery is manned on this mission by Commander Joe Engle, Pilot Richard Covey, and mission specialists James van Hoften, John Lounge and William Fisher. The mission lasts one week, and Discovery is able to return home a day early after achieving mission objectives ahead of time.

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.

Vandenberg shuttle launch pad ready

EnterpriseWith $4 billion having been spent on upgrading and customizing a special launch facility since 1972 to handle (mostly military) Space Shuttle launches in polar orbits, Vandenberg AFB declares Space Launch Complex 6 launch-ready, with a year to go before the first scheduled polar orbit shuttle launch. But in 1986, amid jitters in the wake of the Challenger disaster, planned use of the west coast launch facility is curtailed and finally cancelled, despite the money and time spent.


Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Challenger lifts off on a one-week mission to carry the Spacelab module and an all-German crew to orbit. The “Spacelab D1” mission is flown by Commander Henry Hartsfield, Pilot Steven Nagel, mission specialists James Buchli, Guion Bluford, and Bonnie Dunbar, and payload specialists Reinhard Furrer, Ernst Messerschmid and Wubbo J. Ockels.

This is the final successful launch of Challenger.

Enterprise retired

EnterpriseThe Space Shuttle Enterprise arrives to begin its new life as a star exhibit at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C. Having used the Enterprise as a test shuttle for landings and engineering fit checks, and having dispatched it on a world tour of air shows and other public appearances, NASA donates Enterprise to the Smithsonian, as any plans to refit it into a spaceworthy orbiter have been nixed by this point.


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.


Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Columbia lifts off on a six-day satellite deployment mission, and is also the first spaceflight to include a sitting member of the US Congress among its crew. The SATCOM KU-I satellite is launched, but another payload designed to observe Halley’s Comet (which is rapidly approaching its closest approach to Earth) malfunctions and collects no data. Columbia’s crew for this mission consists of Commander Robert Gibson, Pilot Charles Bolden, mission specialists Franklin Chang-Diaz, Steven Hawley, George Nelson, and payload specialists Robert Cenker and Congressman Bill Nelson.

This is the final successful shuttle flight until 1988.

STS-51L: the Challenger disaster

Space Shuttle73 seconds after liftoff, Space Shuttle Challenger explodes when a rubber O-ring designed to be a tight seal between solid rocket booster segments allows flames from the booster to breach the shuttle’s external fuel tank, causing the tank’s highly flammable contents to ignite. The shuttle is destroyed with all hands aboard. Later analysis reveals that frigid cold temperatures in the nights leading up to the launch allowed the booster’s O-rings to become brittle enough to break – a possibility that NASA had been warned of by engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the contractor responsible for the solid rocket boosters.

Lost in the explosion are Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael Smith, mission specialists Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ronald McNair, and payload specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, the highly-publicized first “teacher in space.”

The Space Shuttle program is grounded for over two years during an investigation and an extensive review of safety and launch procedures.


DiscoveryThe first Space Shuttle launch in over two years since the Challenger accident, Discovery lifts off on a flight to test improved safety systems and procedures. The shuttle’s major payload is the second TDRS (Tracking & Data Relay Satellite) launched by NASA (an identical satellite was lost in the Challenger explosion in 1986), as well as numerous smaller experiments. Problems with Discovery’s environmental system cause the crew cabin to be warmer than usual. Discovery’s crew for this flight consists of Commander Fred Hauck, Pilot Richard Covey, and mission specialists John Lounge, George Nelson, and David Hilmers.


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.


DiscoverySpace Shuttle Discovery lifts off on a nearly-five-day mission to take NASA’s third TDRS (Tracking & Data Relay Satellite) into orbit, among other smaller experiment packages, including IMAX filming. Aboard Discovery for the first shuttle flight of 1989 are Commander Michael Coats, Pilot John Blaha, and mission specialists James Bagian, James Buchli, and Robert Springer.