IT WAS the most complicated vehicle ever built and promised to turn space flights into a routine occurrence.
But now it's the beginning of the end for the NASA space shuttle as it heads for retirement.
The Space Shuttle Discovery took off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida last night on a mission to deliver a new module to the International Space Station.
A further visit is planned, in April, before the Shuttle flies for the last time at the end of June, marking the end of an era in space travel which has lasted 30 years.
While many will be sad at the demise of the iconic spacecraft and unsure of what lies ahead, the Shuttle programme has endured a troubled history, with successes punctuated by two disasters which claimed the lives of 14 crew members.
The maiden flight of the space shuttle programme was on April 12, 1981, when Robert Crippen and veteran astronaut John Young - who had walked on the Moon with the Apollo 16 mission - blasted off into the Florida sky.
It was 20 years to the day since Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space. Now, the US had a re-usable space vehicle, with Crippen describing the experience as a bit like camping.
Nicknamed the "Ultimate Explorer," it was reported that Young's heart rate didn't increase by a single beat when Columbia launched.
NASA had hoped the success of the Apollo 11 mission would propel the space programme forward, with the construction of a US space station being the precursor for a manned flight to Mars within 20 years.
But they were brought crashing back to Earth by President Richard Nixon and his administration, who knew their political careers would be over before the required spending yielded any results.
The space shuttle programme was launched in 1972, with scaledback plans complicated further by the involvement of the Pentagon, who demanded changes to the shuttle design in return for funding so they could launch military satellites. To appease politicians in Congress, contracts for the shuttle were spread across the country, with promises made that launches would happen on a weekly basis. …