In its 23 year history, the space shuttle program has seen exhilarating highs and devastating lows. The fleet has taken astronauts on dozens of successful missions, resulting in immeasurable scientific gains. But this success has had a serious cost. In 1986, the Challenger exploded during launch procedures, and on February 1st of 2003, the Columbia broke up during re-entry over Texas.

In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we examine the monumental technology behind America's shuttle program, as well as the extraordinarily difficult mission it was designed to carry out.

Photo courtesy NASA
Liftoff of the space shuttle