For more than 30 years, America's space shuttles have rocketed into orbit. Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour blasted off 134 times from the Kennedy Space Center. They were mankind's first reusable space launch vehicles, and the first to glide back to Earth on wings. As the space shuttle program ends with the final flight of Atlantis, CNN looks back at key moments that have defined this pioneering space program.
First shuttle mission – After several years of delays, as well as a computer malfunction the day before, America rocketed into the space shuttle era on the morning of April 12, 1981. The shuttle had been through many tests, but for Columbia’s first launch into space, Commander John Young and Pilot Robert Crippen were in the cockpit.
Shuttle firsts – The shuttles have launched many "firsts" into space. Physicist Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983. At age 32, she also holds the record for the youngest astronaut. That same year, Air Force Col. Guion Bluford Jr. became the first African-American in space. In 1983, Ulf Merbold, from West Germany, became the first non-American to fly on the shuttle. The first member of royalty and the first Muslim in space was Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in 1985. Medical doctor Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman in space in 1992. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sergei Krikalev became the first Russian to fly on a space shuttle in 1994. Air Force Col. Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot the shuttle in 1995, and four years later she was the first to command a mission.
Challenger disaster – January 28, 1986, at 11:38 am ET, space shuttle Challenger blasted off from Kennedy Space Center. One minute and 13 seconds later, the ship was engulfed in a fireball which destroyed Challenger and claimed the lives of all onboard. NASA later determined the accident was caused when an O-ring in one of the white solid rocket boosters failed because of unusually cold weather.
Mir Space Station – Built by the Soviet Union, the Mir Space Station opened its doors to the American space shuttle in 1995. The shuttle visited the station 10 times and American astronauts spent nearly 1,000 days on board. The Shuttle-Mir program laid the cooperative and scientific groundwork for the much larger international space station that came later. During the visits, crews and their corresponding ground teams worked out everything from how to dock two different spacecrafts together, to how to bathe on long duration flights.
On Friday, CNN.com will bring you more highlights from the last three decades of NASA's shuttle program.