Can You Answer These Basic Questions About the Space Shuttle Program?


By: Torrance Grey

6 Min Quiz

Image: Pexels

About This Quiz

America's Space Shuttle program arose shortly after the end of the "Space Race" with the Soviet Union. With the U.S. having demonstrated dominance in space by planting a flag on the moon, NASA was free to turn its eyes to an ongoing, practical space-exploration program. That meant getting astronauts and payloads into space in a safe, cost-effective manner. And so, the Space Shuttle program was born. 

For more than 30 years, America's space shuttles would carry satellites and space observatories into orbit. When the International Space Station project was begun, shuttles carried up the components for this ambitious work of "space architecture." Throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, the shuttle program collaborated with Russia (no longer part of the defunct USSR) and other nations -- a far cry from the days of the ultra-competitive Space Race. 

Of course, the program came at a cost -- not only billions of federal budget dollars, but human lives. Most notably, two crews of seven astronauts were lost in catastrophic mission failures. The deaths of non-astronaut workers on the ground didn't make the news in such a big way, but they also died -- in falls from launch platforms or explosions of volatile fuel. Even so, the shuttle program filled many Americans with justifiable pride.

How much do you know about this part of U.S. history? Find out now!

Who was president when the Space Shuttle program was first proposed and studied?

Though Kennedy was known for his aspiration to put a man on the moon, it was Nixon who held office during the early days of the shuttle program. His vice-president, Spiro Agnew, was the head of the task force that studied the idea.


What was a chief goal of the new program?

This goal was achieved when the International Space Station came to life. Shuttles ferried up supplies and astronauts during its construction, much of which happened in orbit.


What year did the Space Shuttle program come to an end?

The shuttle program was discontinued in 2011. Increasingly, private entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are involved in the planning of round-trip space transportation.


The program was also called the STS, for Space _______ System.

Within NASA, the program used to be known as the Integrated Program Plan -- which didn't tell an outsider much about what it was. In time, the popular name became "the Space Shuttle program."


What differentiated the Space Shuttles from earlier spacecraft?

Earlier NASA craft had been one-time-use modules carried into space by rockets, and then splashed down in the ocean. As the name "shuttle" implies, the space shuttles could return to Earth, land like planes, and be launched again.


Which of these did the space shuttles NOT have?

The shuttles had many of the design elements that airplanes have, including wings. Granted, these were not the impressive, long wings that gliders or even most airplanes have. They were short, shallow wings that allowed for gliding on landing.


Which of these was NOT the name of a shuttle?

NASA would have been unlikely to give a shuttle this name, given the competitiveness of the U.S. space program with Russia's. Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, going up in 1963.


True or false: The mission commander always piloted the shuttle.

"Pilot" was a separate position on the shuttle flights. Other specialized positions included "mission specialist" and "payload specialist."


Which of these shuttles was destroyed in catastrophic accidents?

NASA lost two shuttles to in-flight disasters. They were the Challenger and, later, Columbia.


What year was the Challenger disaster?

What made the Challenger disaster -- it exploded about a minute after liftoff -- so tragic was that it was carrying a civilian teacher into space. Christa McAuliffe beat 11,000 other applicants to become NASA's first Teacher in Space, but the Challenger never reached orbit. Today, a crater on Venus is named in McAuliffe's honor.


What caused the Challenger to explode?

The O-ring seals could not stand up to unusually cold conditions at the launch venue. That's the explanation in a nutshell, though the chain of failures this set off is more complicated (too much so to go into here).


About how many Americans watched the live launch of the Challenger?

This is a very high number; it's thought that interest might have been piqued by the participation of a school teacher. Even more extraordinary is the estimate, supported by a survey, that about 85 percent of Americans had heard about the disaster within an hour of the failed launch.


What does "LEO," an important term in the shuttle program, stand for?

Most manmade spacecraft are out into Low Earth Orbit. This was true of the shuttles as well.


Which was the first shuttle to be launched?

The Columbia flew in April 1981. It made 36 orbits around the Earth before returning.


How many astronauts crewed that first shuttle flight?

John Young and Robert Crippen made the first flight. Young was the mission commander and Crippen the pilot.


When Columbia launched, how many years had it been since there were Americans in space?

The last U.S. flight to carry humans into space was the Apollo-Soyuz project in July 1974. Because it was a joint launch with the Russians, it was considered the end of the Space Race.


Where did shuttles frequently touch down?

Many times, shuttles landed at the base in California. Later, Kennedy Space Center in Florida was the preferred landing site.


What year did the Columbia disaster take place?

The failure of STS-107 happened during George W. Bush's first term in office. The U.S. was also gearing up for the second Gulf War at the time.


Over which U.S. state did the Columbia break up?

The wreckage of the Columbia scattered over rural Texas. A large intact piece -- the frame of the cockpit window -- is now part of a memorial at Kennedy Space Center.


What was the root cause of the Columbia disaster?

The piece of foam insulation broke off during launch, but the damage it did to the thermal protection shield on the left wing didn't take its toll until re-entry. The wing overheated and came apart, leading to the entire craft breaking up.


The thermal protection tiles on the space shuttle were designed to withstand temperatures up to what level?

Surprisingly, 90 percent of these "HRSI" tiles were composed of air caught between silica fibers. These fibers made up the other 10 percent.


True or false: There were fatalities involved with the first shuttle flight.

Two engineering workers were killed of oxygen deprivation while working in a nitrogen-filled engine compartment. Three deaths are sometimes attributed to the incident, as a third worker died 14 years later of lasting complications from the 1981 event.


Including astronauts and support workers, how many people have died while working on the shuttle program?

We don't bring this up to be morbid, but rather to point out that America's space program has had a cost in terms of lives as well as dollars. However, we should note that Russia's and China's space programs have had much higher numbers of fatalities, with one accident in Russia costing 78 lives in one day.


What type of fuel did the space shuttles use?

Cyrogenic fuel is fuel that must be stored at very low temperatures to remain liquid. The shuttles' cryogenic engines burned liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.


Who built the engines for the Space Shuttle program?

Rocketdyne had already been making the engines for the Saturn rockets used in NASA's earlier missions. THe company won the Space Shuttle contract in the 1970s.


How many engines did each shuttle have?

Really? Fewer than most airplanes nowadays? It's true, but these engines were huge. The RS-25 engines weighed 7,775 pounds each.


True or false: There is no planned successor to the Space Shuttle program.

The next program on the drawing board is the SLS, or Space Launch System. It will use an expendable craft, but one more powerful than any of the shuttles, with four RS-25 engines.


Which of these did a space shuttle NOT carry into space?

The shuttles were real workhorses. They also carried Spacelab, the Compton Gamma Observatory, and parts of the ISS into orbit.


Which of these was the last shuttle to fly?

The last mission was called a "launch-on-need" mission. The development of commercial rockets to replace shuttle functions was slower than expected, and there was cargo that needed to be carried up to the ISS.


What was the last year in which a space shuttle flew?

The Space Shuttle program bowed in 2011, during President Barack Obama's tenure. Private/commercial rockets were steadily becoming the wave of the future.


How many flights did Space Shuttles make between 1981 and 2011?

In the 1960s, Americans probably couldn't have imagined a time when space flights would become only mildly newsworthy events. Yet that's what the Space Shuttle program, with more than 100 missions, accomplished.


Who commanded the last shuttle mission?

Ferguson led a crew of four. He gave an emotional speech upon landing at Kennedy Space Center.


How many people rode on space shuttles during the program's lifetime?

A total of 355 people hitched a ride into space on NASA's shuttles. Not bad for a program lasting 30 years!


Other than Americans, astronauts of which nationalities flew on shuttles?

Astronauts from 16 nations flew on NASA's space shuttles. The first Belgian and Italian in space both got there courtesy of the program.


On which shuttle did Sally Ride become the first American woman in space?

Ride achieved this honor in 1983. She flew two missions on the Challenger.


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