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American Civilian Space Program (NASA)


This was to be the era of the reusable Space Transportation System (STS), or Space Shuttle for short. Indeed, the space shuttle was to capture the American public attention for the whole decade for better or worse. But with the growing budgets demanding by the shuttle, NASA was able to build and launch two several interplanetary probes, but still missed an opportunity to fly-by Haley's Comet. Space science and planetary physics made strong showing during this decade.


On April 12, 1981, 20 years to the day since the first man (Yuri Gagarin) went into orbit, the Space Shuttle COLUMBIA made its orbital debut, orbiting two days and testing out all systems. It was commanded by an astronaut veteran, John Young, who had flown on 4 other missions including a walk on the Moon during Apollo 16, accompanied by Robert Crippen, a rookie astronaut. The flight made it through with flying colors except for a possible scare when it was noticed that several heat shield tiles had come loose from the tail. But this proved to be no problem, and the COLUMBIA landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California within out incident to a crowd estimated at 20,000 people. COLUMBIA became the first reusable space shuttle on November 12, 1981, when it was launched into space for a second time. NASA and its shuttle was on its way. Five shuttle spacecraft were built, one test vehicle (ENTERPRISE) and four flight vehicles (COLUMBIA, CHALLENGER, DISCOVERY and ATLANTIS). But the shuttle had been first sold to Congress and the White House with the premise of low operational cost and easy access to space. The shuttle system was envisioned to fly 24 times a year. By early 1986, the whole STS fleet had only flown 24 times, and then January 28, 1986 came. The space shuttle CHALLENGER blew up 72 seconds after launch due to a failed O-ring in one of the solid rocket boosters. What made the tragedy worse was that the crew represented such a cross-section of the American community of sex, race and religious background. It had also included the Teacher-In-Space, and the whole country mourned their loss. The Rogers Commission was set up to investigate the accident and recommend changes. Over two years after the explosion of CHALLENGER, the space shuttle Discovery was launched to recertify the solid rocket boosters for manned flight and restart NASA manned spaceflight program. Another space shuttle was ordered, the ENDEAVOUR to replace the destroyed vehicle. NASA tried to expand the scientific return from the shuttle flights and included ESA as partners in the program. ESA's contribution to the shuttle system was the Spacelab module that could fit into the shuttle bay, and be used for scientific or business experimentation. The Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) was another unmanned satellite let loose by the shuttle and returned several years later to determine the effects on materials of long exposure to the space environment. The decade ended with NASA still tied to the STS, and being forced to expand the expendable launch vehicle fleet which the STS was originally planned to replace. But the promise of late 1969 to 1971 with the vision of greater manned exploration was still pursued, and the second building block of a space station was now actively pushed. There were jump-starts to get Space Station Freedom going, but NASA received the reception it got with the shuttle when it came to getting money for the project. Whereas the STS only went through several years of indecision due to the financial merry-go-round between the White House and Congress, the space station project would be tossed around for over 10 years before a final design was accepted and metal being cut. NASA to its credit, got ESA, Russia and Japan to join in the program, making it an international project. However, in making it an international project, NASA would lose some overall control of it. NASA saw the space station as its program of the 90s as STS was its program for the 80s. Even at the end of the 1980s, President Bush proposed a Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) that would get America back to the Moon by the year 2000 and to Mars by 2010. But the price of $500 billion over 20 years was just too great and Congress never gave it serious consideration.



Primary Author: Nicholas M. Short, Sr. email:

Collaborators: Code 935 NASA GSFC, GST, USAF Academy
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