But, as CBS News Correspondent Jane Clayson reports, the Columbia's final mission was unique: It was only about science.
The crew worked in teams around the clock, studying dust and soot, methods to improve cancer drugs and doing experiments that simply can't be done on earth.
"I believe there are many people in society who have no idea how their lives have been impacted by our exploration into space," says astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.
Tyson says from the beginning, the U.S. space program's effect on science and medicine has been spectacular.
"It's not just Tang, and it's not just Kevlar," he says. "It's more than that.
"It wasn't until we first went into space that we got a really good view of hurricanes."
From its first days, space technology created amazing new tools.
To enhance pictures of the moon, scientists invented the devices now used for CAT scans and MRI's.
Bullet-proof vests came from the suits that protect astronauts from small meteors and space debris.
And the smoke detector was created after the deadly 1967 Apollo launch pad fire.
Many high-tech space gadgets have been modified for every day life: Cordless drills came from astronauts needing lightweight tools.
We wouldn't have WD-40, the household lubricant - if not for NASA science. Even Ziploc bags - and small condiments packets - were developed to keep food fresh in space.
But the scientific experiments done in space, from growing plants to trying to learn how fish swim, haven't been as successful as NASA's spin-offs.
"It's fair to say that there has not been any field of science that's been significantly impacted by research done in space," says physics professor Robert Park.
Park believes the real scientific contributions of the space program are in what we learn about the universe.
"I argue we don't spend nearly enough on space programs," he says. "Weather satellites, space satellites, basic science done with the Hubble telescope - all of these things are important and advance our knowledge of basic science many fold."
"Many experiments do matter today," says Tyson. "And the ones that you say, 'Well, why are they doing that?' just hang on (and) be patient."
Like all scientific exploration, space research takes leaps of imagination, and whatever it brings next, it will always take courageous men and women to make the next leap forward.