Space Shuttle Columbia landing, 1980s.
© National Aeronautics & Space Administration / Science & Society
In order to descend to earth the Shuttle is turned so that its orbital manoeuvring system (OMS) engines point in the direction of travel. The engines are fired, slowing the craft until it falls to Earth. As the air gets thicker, the aerodynamic controls become effective and the Orbiter glides down to a landing. The Space Shuttle, the world's first partially reusable launch vehicle, first flew on 12th April 1981 and has been used for all America's manned space misions ever since. Columbia was the first of the Shuttle fleet to fly, and succesfully completed 28 misions before being lost, together with its crew of seven, on re-entry over Texas on 1st February 2003.