The final flight of the space shuttle is slated for July 8, so today, on the eve of America's Independence Day, we're looking back at some of the program's most patriotic moments from the last 30 years.
1. The home of the brave
The first space shuttle mission, STS-1 (Columbia), launched on April 12, 1981, kicking off three decades of the shuttle program. The mission came twenty years after the (former) Soviet Union won the first leg the space race by putting the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin. STS-1 was 54 hours long, during which the shuttle orbited Earth 37 times. As the most complex spacecraft ever, it's surprising to note that it was also the first U.S. manned space vehicle launched without an unmanned powered test flight. Because of this, NASA described the mission as "The boldest test flight in history."
2. Free flying
During the Cold War, the United States kept fighting for new bragging rights in space adventures. A big step for the U.S. came in 1984, when Bruce McCandless II became the first human to make a free, untethered spacewalk (using the Manned Maneuvering Unit) during STS-41B, and thus becoming the first true "human satellite."
3. America's favorite telescope
In 1990, STS-31 set off with the sole mission of deploying the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble is the only telescope in orbit that is also designed to be serviced and repaired in space. Hubble is one of NASA's most successful and long-lasting science missions, and many Hubble observations have led to breakthroughs in astrophysics and have provided some of the most stunning photos of deep space, among those the iconic photos of the "Pillars of Creation" in the Eagle Nebula. Every 97 minutes, Hubble completes its orbit around Earth, moving at the speed of about 5 miles per second (8 km) fast enough to travel across the United States in about ten minutes.
4. An orbital memorial
STS-114 was the first Return to Flight mission since the tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew on Feb. 1, 2003. Two-anda-half years were spent researching and implementing safety improvements for the orbiters and external tanks. Both the Discovery and Expedition 11 crews paid tribute to the Columbia crew and other astronauts and cosmonauts who have lost their lives in the human exploration of space.
5. Fireworks on the 4th
First scheduled for July 1, 2006, weather conditions postponed the STS-121 launch to July 2. In a patriotic turn of events, that launch was also postponed, and the space shuttle ended up blasting off two days later, on Independence Day, giving a whole new meaning to patriotic firework celebrations.