The Space Shuttle program was born only two months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. President Nixon had appointed a Space Task Group to plot the future US course in space earlier that year, and they delivered their report in Sept 1969. They recommended developing new systems, and by early 1970, NASA began engineering studies for a space shuttle. They considered a wide range of concepts, weighing risks and costs. So although I am younger than the space program, I am older than the shuttle program.
On Jan 5, 1972, Nixon announced NASA would develop a reusable low cost space shuttle system. Rockwell won the contract to design first the main engines, then the entire orbiter. Martin Marietta built the external tank.
What most people normally think of as the shuttle is more correctly called the orbiter. The orbiter, together with its external tank and rocket boosters, is the space shuttle. So space shuttles launch: orbiters land on the airstrip.
In 1976, the first orbiter, Enterprise, was rolled out. The Enterprise was a test vehicle, not built for space flight. Originally to be named the Constitution, a write-in campaign asked the White House to rename it Enterprise. Yes, by Star Trek fans.
Enterprise flew 13 test flights in 1977, and the image of the orbiter atop a 747 became a familiar sight in the news. In 1979 Rockwell won the contract to build two space worthy orbiters, Columbia and Atlantis.
Columbia lifted off on April 12, 1981 on mission STS-1. Challenger was delivered in 1982, Discovery in 1983, and Atlantis in 1985.
In January 1986, Challenger broke up 73 seconds into flight on mission STS-51L, and the crew perished. Shuttle launches were suspended for more than two years, returning in Sept 1988 with Discovery. The shuttles got back to work, launching craft to other planets, the Hubble, and supporting space stations including Mir and the ISS. The orbiter Endeavour was rolled out in 1992 to replace the Challenger.
In 2003, 15 minutes before the end of their mission, Columbia broke up, and again all crew members were lost. As before, NASA halted launches to investigate, focusing on foam insulation which broke off during launch. On returning to space in 2005, Discovery also lost foam insulation, but completed its mission. After another year’s delay, a launch in 2006 had engineers worried once more about foam insulation. But again, the mission was completed.
By 2010, it was clear the space shuttle program, along with plans to return to the moon, had been canceled. Four final missions were expanded to five, with the scheduled July 8, 2011 launch of Atlantis ending the 30+ year program.