Almost from the beginning, the space shuttle was a victim of its own success. NASA set out to establish routine transportation to Earth orbit, and that’s just what the shuttle became in the public eye—routine. The astronauts and flight directors knew different, but casual viewers could be forgiven if they tuned out space missions that all seemed alike, and were so well executed that they became predictable.
Occasionally, though, the public did tune in. There were the accidents, of course—Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. But beyond those tragedies, there were moments when the personalities, or the payloads, or the sheer beauty of the photos turned our attention to NASA’s spaceplane and the people who flew it.
Here are 10 of those memorable moments, starting with the launch of the first shuttle, STS-1, in 1981 (above). No space vehicle had ever launched with astronauts on its first flight. And none is likely to do it again.
See the gallery below for more of our Top 10 Shuttle Moments. Let us know your favorites, and tell us which ones we missed.
STS-7: Ride's Ride
Sally Ride didn’t much like her celebrity—it was a distraction from the work. But when she launched on June 18, 1983 as America’s first woman in space, the public face of NASA’s astronaut corps changed forever. Soon other pioneers, including Guy Bluford, the first African-American in space, and Kathy Sullivan, the first U.S. woman spacewalker, were knocking down more stereotypes. Here’s Ride (far left) with fellow shuttle fliers Judy Resnik, Anna Fisher, Sullivan, and Rhea Seddon in 1978, the year they were selected as astronauts.