Forever in Memory: What Are The Space Shuttle Names

29th May 2023
Forever in Memory: What Are The Space Shuttle Names

The NASA Space Shuttle program was a breakthrough in space exploration, raising the level of manned spaceflight to previously unheard-of levels. These reusable spaceships helped the world explore near-Earth space and beyond for as much as 30 years! Let’s remember how it was and what are the legendary space shuttle names that made history.

What is a space shuttle?

The Space Shuttle was a reusable flight system consisting of three components:

  1. orbiter vehicle (OV)  — winged manned rocket plane with a cargo compartment;
  2. liquid fuel tank for the ship’s three main engines;
  3. two lateral solid propellant boosters to launch the shuttle into orbit.

The idea of creating the program arose in 1969, and in 1971, North American Rockwell began its implementation on behalf of NASA. Space Shuttle goals included:

  • reaching and maneuvering in Low Earth Orbit;
  • satellite deployment into orbit;
  • delivery of cargo and crews to space stations and return to Earth;
  • space exploration and Earth observation.

The shuttle could accommodate up to eight crew members and was designed for a two-week stay in orbit, after which it returned to Earth and landed as a glider.

How many space shuttles were there?

In total, eight space shuttles were created — one flight prototype, two full-size prototypes and five fully functional flight ships. Let’s look at their names and the history behind each name.

List of space shuttles

space shuttles with names
5 space shuttles involved in the NASA missions. Credit by NASA

All NASA space shuttles were named for a reason:

  • The prototype Enterprise was named after a popular Star Trek series spaceship. However, it was originally supposed to be called the Constitution in honour of the bicentennial of the American Constitution. Enterprise was launched in 1977 from the back of a modified Boeing 747 that took off from a dry lakebed in California. The scientists wanted to make sure the design was suitable for planned flights and safe landings. The experimental shuttle had no engines and weighed 130 tons.
  • The first, Pathfinder (OV-098), layout got this name because it was literally a pioneering pathfinder. It was created to work out transportation and maintenance procedures so that Enterprise would not be engaged in these tests. Subsequently, it was redesigned to make it more similar to flight models and sent to Japan for an exhibition.
  • The second layout, Independence (OV-100), was built in 1993 as a museum piece for the Kennedy Space Center Demonstration Complex. The internal details of the Independence are inaccurate, but the size and volume of the cargo hold are the same as those of the real Space Shuttle.
  • The first operational shuttle, Columbia (OV-102), is named after the Navy’s first sailing frigate to circumnavigate the globe in 1836.
  • The second shuttle, Challenger (OV-099), was also named after a Navy ship. This time it was in honour of a frigate that had distinguished itself by long exploratory voyages of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
  • The third shuttle, Discovery (OV-103), had the same name as two famous ships. The first ship, led by Henry Hudson in 1610-1611, became famous for the discovery of Hudson Bay, and the second, HMS Discovery, became popular thanks to Captain Cook’s explorations of Hawaii, Alaska, and western Canada.
  • The fourth shuttle, Atlantis (OV-104), was named after the two-masted sailing ship that traversed over 500,000 miles of ocean between 1930 and 1966 as part of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution missions.
  • The fifth shuttle, Endeavor (OV-105), was named after the ship captained by James Cook, that made the first voyage across the Pacific Ocean in 1788.

As you can see, all the space shuttle names, except for the first three, are the names of the ships. So if you are asked, which of the NASA space shuttles was named after a famous oceanographic expedition, feel free to name any of the five.

How many space shuttles launches were there

Space shuttles completed 135 missions in 30 years. Flight statistics from 1981 to 2011 are shown in the table below.

Space shuttle nameFirst and last flight datesNumber of missionsYears of operation
Columbia (OV-102)12.04.1981 – 01.02. 20032822
Challenger (ОV-099)04.04.1983 – 28.01.198610 3
Discovery (OV-103)30.08.1984 – 09.03.20113927
Atlantis (OV-104)03.10.1985 – 08.07.20113326
Endeavour (OV-105)07.05.1992 – 16.05.20112519
Numbers of missions and years of operation of NASA space shuttles.

What is the most famous space shuttle?

Space Shuttle launch
Space Shuttle launch. Image credit: NASA

All American space shuttle names left their mark on the conquest of space, but the most famous one was Discovery, which made 39 flights into space. Thanks to Discovery, NASA deployed the Hubble telescope and carried out two of its maintenance missions, launched the Ulysses probe and three TDRS satellites, all of which helped us to get new insight into space and data about the Earth.

Discovery delivered astronauts and cargo to the Mir space station and the ISS; launched research, military satellites, and communications satellites; conducted technological experiments and atmospheric research. In 1998, the shuttle carried the oldest astronaut, 77-year-old John Glenn, who had been part of the Mercury program. The ship had successfully served for 27 years and became the last one “retired” in 2011.

How many space shuttles were lost in space?

Two of the space shuttles had a tragic fate. These are Challenger and Columbia. Both ships sustained coating damage during takeoff, causing Challenger to explode 73 seconds into the flight and Columbia to burn on landing. Both crews were killed.

Why was the program cancelled?

In 2011, NASA made the decision to stop space shuttle launches. The main reasons were the high risk to the astronauts’ lives (two disasters played their part) and the high costs required to support shuttle operations. Shuttle components had worn out over the years and had to be replaced with newer and better ones to keep the astronauts safe and the missions  — scientifically efficient, but the US government decided not to spend the taxpayer’s budget on this.

Despite the program cancellation, space shuttles remain unique and inimitable and are the favourite transport of astronauts in space movies.

Where did the decommissioned shuttles go?

Shuttle Independence
Shuttle Independence in Houston Space Centre. Credit:

Space shuttle names made the history of space exploration, and so, became the world history’s property. Therefore, after decommissioning, the remaining vehicles were not melted down, but found a permanent “residence” in museums:

  • Enterprise is in New York, at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
  • Discovery was sent to the state of Virginia to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
  • Atlantis can be seen at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
  • Endeavour is located in Los Angeles at the California Science Center.
  • Pathfinder, along with an external fuel tank and two solid rocket boosters, is on display at the Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
  • Independence has been at the Houston Space Center since 2012.

Everyone can visit these museums and personally touch the legends.

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