Ever since 125 million Americans watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, there has been a desire to explore the universe outside of our world. For more than 30 years, America’s space shuttles allowed that dream to become a reality. The vehicles, which weighed about 160,000 pounds empty, carried more than 600 astronauts (no more than seven at a time) beyond the “surly bonds of earth.” Initiated in 1972, the shuttle program was unique in many ways. When the first manned shuttle was launched on April 12, 1981, it was the first time vehicles that were used to transport humans into outer space could be reused. And here are some other awesome facts about America’s space shuttles.
‘Star Trek’ Fans Had a Hand in Naming the First Orbiter
The shuttle program’s first orbiter was going to be named Constitution. However, Star Trek fans got wind of this and sent a letter to the White House requesting that the name be changed. The newly christened “Enterprise” made its public debut on September 17, 1976. Successful test launches were done a year later.
Some Unusual Stuff Flew on Shuttle Missions
The space shuttles have transported an assortment of oddities over the years. Some of the more unique objects have included a spike from the First Transcontinental Railroad, the Olympic torch, cans of Coca-Cola and Pepsi (originally it was going to be just Coke until Pepsi heard about it and insisted on being included after developing their own specially designed can), rocks from Mount Everest, the New York Mets’ home plate, and, of course, a Buzz Lightyear action figure.
Atlantis Docked Aboard a Russian Space Station
America’s space program began in the 1950s as an effort to outpace the Russians, a goal that was achieved, in part, by putting a man on the moon and creating the shuttle program. By the mid-1990s, the Cold War was over and there was cooperation between the two nations. A visual sign of this was Atlantis’ docking on Russia’s Mir space station on June 29, 1995. It was the first time Russia and the U.S. docked spacecraft together since a test project in 1975.
Discovery Logged More Than a Year in Orbit
If you add up all the time the space shuttle Discovery spent in space, it comes to just over 365 days, or one Earth year; that’s a total of more than 148 million miles on the odometer! First launched into orbit in 1984 following four years of construction, Discovery completed 39 missions, more than any other shuttle. The last one was completed in 2011. Incidentally, Discovery was also the shuttle that marked America’s return to space following the 1986 and 2003 shuttle tragedies.
The First Tweet from Space was Sent from a Shuttle
“From orbit: Launch was awesome!” This was an intro of the first 140-character Twitter post sent from outer space. The initial intergalactic tweet was sent by astronaut Michael Massimino from the shuttle Atlantis under the name “Astro_Mike” on May 11, 2009. All four crew members on the shuttle’s final mission tweeted details of their adventure. On a related note, NASA’s Doug Wheelock won Twitter’s Shorty Award for tweets he sent while aboard the International Space Station.
While two of the 135 shuttle launches ended tragically (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003), the program overall was remarkably successful. A perfect example of the enduring legacy of America’s manned space explorations is the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched into space in 1990, it continues to produce awe-inspiring images and help scientists make wondrous new discoveries. Atlantis, which orbited the Earth nearly 5,000 times, was the final shuttle launched into space from Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011. The four remaining orbiters are permanently housed in New York, Virginia, Florida, and California.