Routine spaceflight

The US space agency, NASA, was increasingly focused on developing the Space Shuttle—a "spaceplane" launched with the aid of a massive external fuel tank and two rocket boosters. The system was largely reusable, and it was expected to cut the costs of reaching

orbit dramatically. The size of a small airliner, the Shuttle could comfortably accommodate a crew of seven for a period of up to two weeks, while the huge cargo hold could carry two satellites for deployment in orbit, or a laboratory module, Spacelab.

The Space Shuttle made a successful first flight in April 1981, and five were eventually built. However, it never achieved its full potential— problems with the fragile insulating tiles that protected the orbiter on reentry crippled the first years of operation, and just as its flights were becoming routine, the disastrous explosion of Challenger during launch in January 1986 led to a long suspension of flights and a series of expensive redesigns.

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