What Was the First Space Shuttle? The History of NASA Spacecraft

Posted by Derek LaPlante on

Space exploration is something most people are used to talking and hearing about these days. It's not anything new to watch a shuttle go off, whether you're standing in the crowds at Cape Canaveral or looking at TV coverage.

Years ago, though, the thought of making something take off from Earth and go into space was a really big deal. Space was the final frontier - an unknown world many people were curious about, but only a special, skilled few were able to go.

These astronauts could not have done it without the help of their team at NASA. It took a village to get one aircraft up, into orbit, and back down safely. If you're curious about what was the first space shuttle and how it came about, keep reading.

What Was the First Space Shuttle Meant to Do?

NASA's first space shuttle was launched on April 12, 1981. This was after the U.S. had beat the Soviets to put a man on the moon in 1969 with Apollo 11, and even later than all the test flights and research satellites launched into orbit in years prior.

The thing is, though, everything that was launched into space before April 1981 was only for a short time. Neil Armstrong's mission was to get to the moon and come right back. There was no time for space exploration other than the mission at hand.

That's where the space shuttle came in. Putting a shuttle into orbit would mean the U.S. would have more time to understand what was out there.

The government stopped thinking about space as a place to quickly visit, instead, the shuttle program was the dawn of a new era. This would allow NASA and its astronauts to form a community on the final horizon, one that would provide ample opportunities for research and discovery.

How Did the First Space Shuttle Come About?

To understand the significance of the Columbia Shuttle, you have to better understand everything that came before. The race to space wasn't just to claim a trophy for doing what other countries hadn't done before - it was a significant show of power. This was crucial in the time of the Cold War when tensions with the Soviets were high.

Let's take a look back at the events that lead to the first space shuttle.

The Plans of Nazi Germany

It's hard to imagine that anyone - let alone large portions of government offices - was focused on getting to the moon in the 1900s. Think about it: the 1900s gave us, not one, but two world wars; the Great Depression; the war in Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Out of all this turmoil, though, came something good.

The first plans to go into space were actually created in Nazi Germany. The Germans had an idea to launch a shuttle into suborbital space so that it wouldn't be seen approaching. The plane would then come back down as it was reaching New York City and bomb the area.

Thankfully, those plans were never executed. The Nazis failed at their mission and after the war was over, their plans involving space came into American hands. American officials started looking into the possibilities of going into space based on these ideas, but they weren't the only ones trying to get up there.

The Americans Take Space... After the Russians

As mentioned above, the Soviets actually got into space first. They were the first people to put a satellite into orbit and to get a man into space, in 1957 and 1961, respectively. This is why we know Neil Armstrong's mission as something so important to American history.

It really wasn't just one step for man - it was a powerful shift in the tensions between America and the Soviets. After the Soviet's first two moves, there was no other option but to go to the moon.

At least, that was President Kennedy's vision. When Nixon came to office after the famous space mission of 1969, he had plans for something more.

The Need for Something More

Going to the moon wasn't enough. America had to show we had the upper hand in space in order to ease tensions going on across the globe. After countless discussions with his team, Nixon decided it was time to launch a shuttle into space.

This decision actually had its foundation in the aftermath of Nazi Germany. The plans for the Nazi's powerful space and air machine were brought over during a mission called Operation Paperclip, a plan to get information from Nazi scientists. One of these scientists was Wernher von Braun.

von Braun had a course of action mapped out in his head for how space exploration should go. He thought it made the most sense for a nation to put someone in space, then build a reusable spacecraft for multiple trips into space, then use that to build a space station. His ideas took flight; they became the guidance for NASA's missions from its very first tests and launches to the first space shuttle launch 1969.

What Came Next?

The iconic Space Shuttle Columbia was indeed reusable. This shuttle made its debut in 1981 and continued to fly to the moon for 30 years. It completed over 135 missions safely and significantly contributed to the success of NASA today.

Space Shuttle Columbia took the space program to new heights. It allowed NASA to go from building a new spacecraft from scratch for every mission to better allocate funds and other resources.

Today, NASA has powerful telescopes in space, satellites exploring Mars and other parts of the galaxy, and incredible researchers, astronauts, and officials making it all possible. We've come a long way since the Space Race, and have the whole galaxy to go.

Nasa Then and Now, and the Timeless T-Shirts for Space Enthusiasts

Whether you love learning about NASA's history or you're more interested to see where we go next, there's something cool about everything space has to offer. It truly is a whole other world out there. Thankfully, NASA is able to bring us pieces of space through the shuttles, telescope images, astronaut interviews, and more.

None of this would have been possible without Space Shuttle Coloubia. Now that you know a little more about what was the first space shuttle, you have much more to learn!

To share your excitement about space with others, consider buying a space-themed shirt. Click here to check out all the awesome designs we have available!

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