The End of an Era

The final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery marks the end of the 30-year space shuttle program. Read on to learn more about the history of the space shuttle program and how it can be used to inspire your students to reach for the stars in science, math, engineering, and technology.

Officially called the Space Transportation System (STS), the space shuttle began its flight career with the launch of Columbia on April 12, 1981. The space shuttle program, however, got its start as early as 1969 when NASA began early studies of space shuttle designs. It was officially launched in 1972 when President Nixon announced that NASA would develop a reusable space travel system.

In addition to Columbia, there were four other space shuttles: Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. The shuttles flew more than 130 times, carrying over 350 people into space and travelling more than half a billion miles. They were the first manned space vehicles that could achieve orbit and then land on their own. They carried out various missions, including carrying segments to be added to the International Space Station (ISS), transporting new crew members to the ISS, retrieving satellites and other payloads from orbit, and providing service missions.

We’re all aware of and likely remember where we were when both the Challenger and Columbia tragedies happened. Challenger was lost on January 28, 1986 just 73 seconds after liftoff. All crew members died. Columbia was lost on February 16, 2003 on re-entry—16 minutes before its expected landing. We should not let these tragedies, however, overshadow the accomplishments of the program.

When looking back at the space shuttle program, we should take note of all the various kinds of scientific disciplines that were involved in making it a success, from aerodynamics to structures and materials. We also should consider all of the science experiments conducted on the shuttle, from microbiology to a 13-mile space tether that generated 3,500 volts and up to 0.5 amps of current.

You can use this time of national reflection on the space shuttle program to engage and encourage your students in all the opportunities provided by science exploration. It’s also a good time to encourage them to consider the costs/risks and benefits of such an ambitious program. Were the benefits worth the costs—both in terms of the lives lost and the financial costs? What do they think about the decision to bring the program to a close? What types of factors had to be taken into account by policy makers and scientists when they were deciding whether or not to continue the program?

Check out the Science NetLinks Collection on Celebrating Space Exploration to find resources that can help you explore this topic with your students.


 Photo Credit: National Aeronautics and Space Administration 



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