Birth of the Space Shuttle Program 

US #3190a – from the Celebrate the Century – 1980s Sheet

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 here to read Nixon’s complete space shuttle announcement.

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

You asked, and we listened…  FREE printable This Day in History album pages are now available!

Click here to download a PDF of today’s article.  

It’s two pages.  The first page has a border so you can print it on whatever paper you want.  The second page doesn’t have a border so you can print it on Mystic’s blank supplement pages.  

And click here if you need a binder, or other supplies to create your This Day in History album.  You’ll find handy mount grab bags, or you can get the mounts you need on each individual US stamp page.  

Let us know if you like these pages and want us to keep creating them.  

And remember – you can purchase any of the stamps, covers, or coins in these articles.  Just click on the pictures and add them to your cart.

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

Did you like this article? Click here to rate:
Share this Article


  1. Nixon singlehandedly derailed the momentum NASA and the country had achieved with the moon missions. His nearsighted vision and budget cutting delayed planning for manned Mars missions by decades.

  2. I remember the first flight – I had a friend in high school that went along to college and then landed his first job with Martin Marietta and working on the program. He sent me a large photograph of the shuttle being moved to the pad from 1981, poster size, which I framed and have still have displayed in my office today! While very impressed with the shuttle program – I also remember exactly where I was when the Challenger exploded. I was at work and one of the managers had a television that he brought out and set up so a number of us could watch. We all were in shock and disbelief. What unfolded in the aftermath was quite incredible too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *