Even before the Apollo space programme of the 1960s put a man on the Moon, a fledgling NASA was conceptualising a reusable spacecraft for manned flight. Work on the Space Shuttle began in earnest in the 1970s, with the first of four test flights in 1981, followed by operational missions beginning in 1982.
Now, more than 30 years later, the Space Shuttle is tentatively scheduled to be retired from service in 2011 after 135 launches - and countless changes to the way the world sees space, aerospace and the Earth itself.
As the programme prepares to close, we look back across its lifespan - at how the spacecraft itself conceived, its contributions to aerospace and what might come next for manned space exploration. We even fly along on the de-orbit and final approach path the orbiter will take on its last trip home.