This Day in History… January 5, 1972

Birth of the Space Shuttle Program 

US #3190a from the Celebrate the Century – 1980s sheet.  Click the image to buy.

On January 5, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed legislation authorizing the creation of America’s first space shuttle, the “world’s first reusable spacecraft.”

NASA began studying the possibility of space shuttles in the late 1960s.  Then in 1969, President Nixon created the Space Task Group, led by Vice President Spiro Agnew.  The group established a list of missions that included the creation of space vehicles, a space station, and eventually a manned mission to Mars.

US #3261 pictures the space shuttle touching down.  Click the image to buy.

Agnew presented the plans to the president, who said he wouldn’t support a Mars mission and only wanted flights to low Earth orbit for the time being.   Nixon then said to choose between the space station and the main reusable vehicle. He selected the vehicle because it could carry out some of the missions that the station might have done.  The shuttle would also provide for longer-duration missions and make an eventual space station less expensive.

US #2544 pictures the Challenger.  Click the image to buy.

President Nixon announced the new space shuttle program on January 5, 1972.  In his statement, he said, “This system will center on a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from Earth to orbit and back. It will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics…  The new system will differ radically from all existing booster systems, in that most of this new system will be recovered and used again and again – up to 100 times. The resulting economies may bring operating costs down as low as one-tenth of those present launch vehicles…  The general reliability and versatility which the Shuttle system offers seems likely to establish it quickly as the workhorse of our whole space effort, taking the place of all present launch vehicles except the very smallest and very largest.”

US #3262 pictures the space shuttle piggyback.  Click the image to buy.

Work immediately began on the first space shuttle. Initially, it was to be named Constitution, but fans of the television show Star Trek launched a massive letter-writing campaign that convinced officials to name it Enterprise.  The Enterprise was unveiled on September 17, 1976.  It was never meant to fly in space, rather it was used for atmospheric flight, vibration, and launch tests.

US #2544A pictures the Endeavor lifting off.  Click the image to buy.

The first shuttle to launch into space was the Columbia on April 12, 1981.  Apollo astronaut John Young was aboard for the 54.5-hour test mission.  Over the next 30 years, the space shuttle program had 133 successful missions and two failures (the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003). The space shuttle is the only winged, manned craft to achieve both orbit and landing, and the only reusable manned spaceship to make multiple flights into orbit.

Over the years, shuttle missions aided Spacelab, helped construct and repair the International Space Station, serviced the Hubble Telescope, and carried various satellites and observatories into Earth’s orbit.  Each mission’s crew consisted of five to seven people – in all, over 600 people flew on shuttle missions.

Item #M892 – Commemorative cover carried aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.  Click the image to buy.

Click here to read Nixon’s complete space shuttle announcement.

Click here for a detailed list of all US space shuttle missions.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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