Fate of the Space Shuttles

By James | Last updated August 23, 2023

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In 2011, after 34 years of service and the end of the Space Shuttle programme in sight, NASA announced the names of the museums that were to receive the three remaining airworthy Space Shuttles on their retirement.

How Many Space Shuttles Were There

In all, six flyable Space Shuttles were built, though only five were used for space flight.

Two were lost with all their crew; Challenger (STS-51) was the first in 1986 when it exploded shortly after launch following a failure in one of the solid rocket boosters and then Columbia (STS-107) in 2003 when it disintegrated upon re-entry as a result of damage to the protective tiles during blast off.

Shuttle NameFirst Flight
Enterprise (OV-101)August 12, 1977
Columbia (OV-102)April 12, 1981
Challenger (OV-099)April 4, 1983
Discovery (OV-103)August 30, 1984
Atlantis (OV-104)October 3, 1985
Endeavour (OV-105)May 7, 1992

Enterprise never actually went into space but was used to test systems, gliding and landings, after being launched from the top of a Boeing 747 shuttle carrier aircraft.

There were also several full sized shuttle mockups built.

The first was built by North American Rockwell in 1972 and was subsequently named “Inspiration”. It was put on display at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, Downey, California in 2012 but then placed in storage in 2014.

In 1977 NASA built a test simulator (OV-098) and it is now on display named as “Pathfinder” at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama.

A second full scale shuttle replica named “Inspiration” was originally named “Shuttle to Tomorrow” then “Endeavour”. It was displayed outside the original United States Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville from 1992 until the Hall of Fame closed in 2015.

The mockup was then donated to LVX System with a view to making it into a travelling educational outreach and marketing aid.

Guard-Lee in Florida constructs museum quality replicas and in 1993 they built a replica named “Explorer” and it was displayed at the Kennedy Space Center in 1993 until its move to Space Center Houston in 2012 following the decommissioning of Atlantis.

In 1994 a theme park simulator ride named “Space Shuttle America – The Next Century” was built at Six Flags Great America, Gurnee, Illinois. Outside the attraction was a lifelike glass fibre mockup of a space shuttle named “America” but it was removed in 2009 when the attraction was closed.

Where Are The Space Shuttles Now

As expected, the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) received a shuttle and another was promised to the National Air and Space Museum. The final resting places of the four remaining shuttles are:

Shuttle NameLocation
DiscoveryNational Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Washington DC
AtlantisKennedy Space Center, Florida
EndeavourCalifornia Science Center, Los Angeles, California
EnterpriseIntrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, New York

The Space Shuttle “Enterprise” was originally located at the National Air and Space Museum but then relocated to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, New York, with Discovery’s arrival.

The replica shuttle “Explorer”, located at KSC, was moved to NASA’s Space Center Houston in Texas and is now renamed as “Independence”. It sits on top of NASA 905, a Boeing 747 used to transport the shuttles.

Around 20 museums had made a bid for a shuttle but the idea was to locate them across the breadth of the United States to give everyone a chance to see one. Other space shuttle related artefacts have been distributed amongst a number of other museums throughout to United States.

Some components from the shuttles were re-used, the original RS-25 engines are now being used on the NASA Space Launch System booster rockets.

Final Flights of the Remaining Space Shuttles

The last three remaining shuttles all made their last flights in 2011.

Discovery completed its last mission (STS-133) in March and was de-commissioned in readiness for its move to Washington.

Endeavour made its final mission (STS-134) in May and was decommissioned upon return to Earth before heading to the West Coast.

Atlantis then flew the last ever shuttle mission (STS-135) in July without any rescue backup shuttle before returning to the Kennedy Space Center for the final time, marking the end of a 30 year programme to fly astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

It now forms part of a centrepiece attraction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center.

Until the introduction of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with its Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2020, all subsequent crewed missions to the ISS relied on Russian rockets.

See also: watching a rocket launch, Kennedy Space Center, Buying Kennedy Space Center tickets, Current rocket launch schedule in Florida

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