The Space Shuttle was a crewed, partially reusable low Earth orbital spacecraft operated by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Its official program name was Space Transportation System, taken from a 1969 plan for a system of reusable spacecraft of which it was the only item funded for development. The first of four orbital test flights occurred in 1981, leading to operational flights beginning in 1982. They were used on a total of 135 missions from 1981 to 2011, launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Operational missions launched numerous satellites, interplanetary probes, and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST); conducted science experiments in orbit; and participated in construction and servicing of the International Space Station.
Shuttle components included the Orbiter Vehicle (OV), a pair of recoverable solid rocket boosters (SRBs), and the expendable external tank (ET) containing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The Shuttle was launched vertically like a conventional rocket, with the two SRBs operating in parallel with the OV's three main engines, which were fueled from the ET. The SRBs were jettisoned before the vehicle reached orbit, and the ET was jettisoned just before orbit insertion using the orbiter's two Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines. At the conclusion of the mission, the orbiter fired its OMS to drop out of orbit and re-enter the atmosphere. The orbiter glided to a runway landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base in California or at the Shuttle Landing Facility at the KSC. After the landings at Edwards, the orbiter was flown back to KSC on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a specially modified Boeing 747.
The first orbiter, Enterprise, was built purely for Approach and Landing Tests and had no capability to fly into orbit. Four fully operational orbiters were initially built: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis. Of these, Challenger and Columbia were destroyed in mission accidents in 1986 and 2003, respectively, in which a total of fourteen astronauts were killed. A fifth operational orbiter, Endeavour, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger. The Space Shuttle was retired from service upon the conclusion of Atlantis' final flight on July 21, 2011.
Until another US manned spacecraft is ready, crews will travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS) exclusively aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
A planned successor to STS was the "Shuttle II", during the 1980s and 1990s, and later the Constellation program during the 2004–2010 period. CSTS was a proposal to continue to operate STS commercially, after NASA. In September 2011, NASA announced the selection of the design for the new Space Launch System that is planned to launch the Orion spacecraft and other hardware to missions beyond low earth-orbit.
The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program began in 2006 with the purpose of creating commercially operated unmanned cargo vehicles to service the ISS. The SpaceX Dragon became operational in 2012, and the Orbital Sciences' Cygnus, is expected to be launched in September 2013. The Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program was initiated in 2010 with the purpose of creating commercially operated manned spacecraft capable of delivering at least four crew members to the ISS, to stay docked for 180 days, and then return them back to Earth. These spacecraft are expected to become operational in the mid-2010s.
Space Shuttles have been features of fiction and nonfiction, from movies for kids to documentaries. Early examples include the 1979 James Bond film, Moonraker, the 1982 Activision videogame Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space (1982) and G. Harry Stine's 1981 novel Shuttle Down. In the 1986 film SpaceCamp, Atlantis accidentally launched into space with a group of U.S. Space Camp participants as its crew. The 1998 film Armageddon portrayed a combined crew of offshore oil rig workers and US military staff who pilot two modified Shuttles to avert the destruction of Earth by an asteroid. Retired American test pilots visited a Russian satellite in the 2000 Clint Eastwood adventure film Space Cowboys. In the 2003 film The Core, the Endeavour's landing is disrupted by the earth's magnetic core, and its crew is selected to pilot the vehicle designed to restart the core. The 2004 Bollywood movie Swades, where a Space Shuttle was used to launch a special rainfall monitoring satellite, was filmed at Kennedy Space Center in the year following the Columbia disaster that had taken the life of Indian-American astronaut KC Chawla. On television, the 1996 drama The Cape portrayed the lives of a group of NASA astronauts as they prepared for and flew Shuttle missions. Odyssey 5 was a short lived sci-fi series that featured the crew of a Space Shuttle as the last survivors of a disaster that destroyed Earth. The 2013 film Gravity features the fictional space shuttle Explorer, whose crew are killed or left stranded after it is destroyed by a shower of high speed orbital debris.
The Space Shuttle has also been the subject of toys and models; for example, a large Lego Space Shuttle model was constructed by visitors at Kennedy Space Center, and smaller models have been sold commercially as a standard "LegoLand" set. A 1984 pinball machine "Space Shuttle" was produced by Williams and features a plastic Space Shuttle model among other artwork of astronauts on the play field.