NASA’s space shuttle era ended on July 21, 2011, when space shuttle Atlantis landed after the final space shuttle mission (STS-135). It began 35 years ago, Saturday, on September 17, 1976, when the first space shuttle, Enterprise, rolled out of its production facility to fanfare and with several Star Trek stars in attendance.
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A massive write-in campaign had taken place to get the first space shuttle renamed from Constitution to Enterprise, the name of the starship in Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction television show, Star Trek. Irony played out in two ways: the Enterprise in Roddenberry’s series was a Constitution-class starship. Additionally, the space shuttle Enterprise never made it into outer space, being solely a test vehicle.
An image taken at the rollout of the Enterprise shows a number of Star Trek stars in attendance. From left to right in the image above are NASA Administrator Dr. James D. Fletcher; the late DeForest Kelley (Dr. “Bones” McCoy); George Takei (Sulu); the late James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott); Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura); Leonard Nimoy (Spock); series creator Gene Rodenberry; an unnamed NASA official; and Walter Koenig (Chekov).
While the original series was long cancelled, three years later, the first Star Trek movie debuted. While eventually categorized as a flop, it led to several more (1, 2), including a reboot of the movie series in 2009. The movies also led to the rebirth of Star Trek on television, with the eventual series Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise.
Although the Enterprise never made it into outer space, it did fly. On Jan. 31, 1977, NASA transported the Enterprise thirty-six miles overland to its Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base.
Then, for the next nine months, engineers put the shuttle through a series of tests, including flight tests. These tests demonstrated the airworthiness and landing abilities of the shuttle’s design.
The shuttles that made it into space were Columbia, debuting in 1979; Challenger in 1982; Discovery in 1983; Atlantis in 1985 and Endeavour in 1991.
Columbia was the first into space, in April of 1981, but was lost along with its entire seven-astronaut crew in a 2003 re-entry accident. In 1986, Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, killing all seven crew members aboard.
In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, the Enterprise almost got a chance to make it into space. NASA considered retrofitting the Enterprise as a replacement for Challenger. Instead, however, the space agency ultimately decided that using spare components left over from building Discovery and Atlantis to assemble Endeavour was a more cost-effective approach.
Since 1985, Enterprise has resided at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum near Washington, D.C. Soon, however, the shuttle will be moved to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City, as the formerly active Shuttle Discovery takes its place at the Smithsonian.
The California Science Center in Los Angeles will house Endeavour. Meanwhile, Atlantis will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.