The Space Shuttle program is officially labelled the "Space Transportation System, STS for short. It was originally concieved in the 1960s even before the United States put their first man on the moon. The program got started in 1969 when President Nixon formed a task group to work on a way forward.
The committee along with NASA decided that the program should create a reusable winged orbiter launched by rockets that could take people and cargo into space and return on its own, landing on a runway rather than in the ocean as the Apollo and Mercury programs had done.
The Space Shuttle will carry up to seven people and up to 50,000 pounds (@ 22,000 kg) of cargo. It will normally fly into low Earth orbit. In orbit, its passengers may deploy satellites, perform experiments, visit the space station and do spacewalks.
The Space Shuttle program officially began in 1972. In 1972 the Enterprise (named for the starship in the Star Trek series) came on-line and conducted the initial tests that proved the concept to be sound. Columbia was the first fully functional shuttle. It was launched in 1981. There were several other spacecraft to follow, Discovery, Atlantis and Challenger. The Challenger was destroyed when its O-ring failed shortly after take-off. Seven astronauts were killed. The Challenger was replaced by the Endeavor. Another disastrous mission occured in 2003 when the Columbia was destroyed during re-entry. It is thought that the craft's heat shield was damaged by floating space dibris.
But the dramatic failures of two Shuttles should not take away from the stellar list of accomplishments made by the program, which include servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, deployment of space probes and satellites. Servicing the international space station and allowing inumerable experiments to be conducted in conditions impossible to achieve on the Earth.
Interesting Links: Space Shuttle Woodkit, F-15 Eagle.