Designed to fly aboard NASA's Space Shuttle Columbia, STS-2, Shuttle Imaging Radar-A was the first in a series of instruments that imaged Earth using radar pulses, rather than optical light, as illumination. The instrument helped detect the remnants of buried ancient riverbeds in the Sahara Desert because it could peer beneath features like sand, which are impenitrable to optical light observations.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory built the instrument and its follow-ons, which were the largest space structures ever built at JPL.