Space Shuttle Orbiter

Space Shuttle AtlantisOn July 26, 1972, Rockwell International won a $2.6 billion contract to build the space shuttle orbiter, designated OV-101 (orbiter vehicle 101). The first test shuttle, the Enterprise, rolled out Sept. 17, 1976. From Jan. 31 to Oct. 26, 1977, it used a Boeing 747, modified as a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, to take it to the upper atmosphere for the approach and landing test program. The tests showed the orbiter could fly in the atmosphere and land like an airplane.

The Enterprise remained a test article. Its legacy of information was incorporated into the next shuttle, the Columbia (OV-102). On April 12, 1981, the Columbia was the first space shuttle to fly into orbit. During its 27 flights between 1981 and 2002, the Columbia's achievements included the first launch of satellites from a space shuttle, the first flight of the European-built scientific workshop called Spacelab and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. The Columbia and its seven astronauts were lost Feb. 1, 2003, when the vehicle broke up during re-entry from orbit.

The Challenger (OV-99) was the second orbiter to become operational at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It joined the NASA fleet in July 1982, flew nine successful missions, made 987 orbits and spent 69 days in space. Then on Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger and its seven-member crew were lost 73 seconds after launch.

The third shuttle, the Discovery (OV 103), had arrived at Kennedy Space Center in November 1983. On its first mission on Aug. 30, 1984, it deployed three communications satellites. After modifications, it flew the first space shuttle mission of the post-Challenger era on Sept. 29, 1988. The Atlantis (OV-104) made its first orbital flight Oct. 3, 1985. During its second flight, Nov. 26, 1985, its astronaut crew conducted the first experiments for assembling structures in space. It was modified and returned into orbit Dec. 2, 1988. The next shuttle, the Endeavour (OV-105), made its first flight, May 7, 1992.

The May 19, 2000, launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis introduced a host of enhancements, including an adaptation of the glass cockpit system used in the Boeing 777. The space shuttle used Ku-band radar, built by Boeing Satellite Systems, to communicate with the ground. The radar function can pinpoint objects in space as far away as 345 miles for shuttle rendezvous. By linking with a NASA satellite, the communications function allowed crews to transmit television-like pictures, voice messages and high-speed data streams.

Space shuttles support a wide variety of space operations, from scientific experiments and observations; to spacecraft deployment, retrieval, service and repair; to assembly of large space structures, such as the International Space Station. After the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, the program was suspended until Space Shuttle Discovery returned to flight on July 28, 2005.

First landing: August 12, 1977
Span: 78.06 feet
Length: 122.2 feet
Height: 56.67 feet
Gross weight: 4.5 million pounds
Power plant: Two 3.3 million-pound-thrust (at sea level) solid rocket boosters; three 394,000-pound-thrust orbiter main engines
Payload: 55,000 pounds
Capability: Up to 12 flights a year