Every Flight is a Mission to Planet Earth

By Michael Carlowicz Design by Robert Simmon July 8, 2011

It wasn’t built for Earth science, but the contributions were inevitable.

When the Space Shuttle Columbia first rocketed into space on a pillar of fire in April 1981, it was the maiden voyage of the world’s first re-useable spacecraft. Launched nine years after the last Apollo voyage to the Moon and six years after the joint Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the shuttle was built to ferry humans and cargo into low-Earth orbit. It was part space plane, part rocket-propelled pick-up truck, and part orbiting launch platform.

But as the Earth science team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center likes to say: Every shuttle mission is a mission to planet Earth.

Photograph of Space Shuttle Columbia on the pad at Kennedy Space Center.
Photograph of the launch of Space Shuttle Columbia.

(NASA photographs KSC-81PC-0136 and S81-30498.)

Jack Kaye, associate director for NASA’s Earth Science Division, put it this way in a recent book entitled Wings In Orbit:

The Space Shuttle launched major satellites that helped revolutionize our study of the Earth. Its on-board experiments provided discoveries and new climatologies never before available...It provided for multiple flight opportunities for highly calibrated instruments to help verify results from satellites...Shuttle flights provided for on-orbit demonstration of techniques that helped pave the way for subsequent instruments and satellites...The shuttle enabled international cooperation.

NASA’s Space Shuttle program comes to an end this month with the launch of Atlantis. Over the years, Earth Observatory has featured many images, data sets, and human insights from the Space Shuttle program. The following pages pay homage to those achievements and the unique view of Earth that America’s "space transportation system," or STS, has delivered for thirty years.

Photograph of STS 134 shortly after liftoff.

(NASA photograph STS134-S-062.)

Print this entire article