What Is the Space Shuttle?
The space shuttle is NASA's space transportation system, designed to carry astronauts and cargo to and from Earth orbit. The first space shuttle flight took place in 1981. The space shuttle fleet is scheduled to be retired in 2011. When the shuttle program ends, the space shuttle will have been launched on more than 130 missions.
Space Shuttle Program
What Can the Space Shuttle Do?
Space Shuttle Flight History
Space Shuttle Basics →
The space shuttle normally takes as many as seven astronauts to and from space. During its history, the space shuttle has been used for many different types of missions. It has been used to launch satellites and serve as an orbiting science laboratory. Its crews have repaired and improved other spacecraft, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttle has been used for military missions. Today, the space shuttle is mostly used to work on the International Space Station.
What Are the Parts of the Space Shuttle?
The space shuttle has three main parts. The first part is the orbiter. The orbiter is the large, white space plane where the crew lives and works. It is the only part of the shuttle that goes into orbit. The orbiter also has a payload bay for carrying cargo into orbit. The second part of the shuttle is the external tank. This is the large orange fuel tank that attaches to the bottom of the orbiter for launch. The third part is actually two pieces. A pair of white solid rocket boosters provides most of the thrust for the first two minutes of a shuttle launch. The solid rocket boosters are long and thin.
How Does the Space Shuttle Launch and Land?
The space shuttle takes off like a rocket. The solid rocket boosters and the main engines on the orbiter provide the thrust, or push, for launch. The solid rocket boosters burn for about two minutes. Then they are dropped from the shuttle and fall into the ocean. Special boats bring them back so they can be used again. The shuttle’s main engines fire for another six minutes. The external tank is dropped and burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere. At this point, the shuttle and its crew are in orbit. The orbiter lands like a glider. While in orbit, it fires its engines to slow down. After re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, it glides in for a landing on a runway. When the orbiter touches down on the runway, a parachute is used to help slow it down.
Space Shuttle Launch and Landing
How Many Orbiters Are There?
Today, there are three orbiters that fly into space. They are Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. Since the shuttle began flying in 1981, two orbiters, Columbia and Challenger, have been lost due to accidents. One other orbiter, Enterprise, never flew into space. It was built to test how the orbiters would work and now is on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C.
Orbiter Vehicles →