The Space Shuttle

Target Audience
  • Students
Hosting Center(s)
  • Glenn Research Center
Subject Category
  • Physical Science
Unit Correlation
  • Exploring NASA Missions
  • Exploring Engineering and Technology
Grade Level
  • K-04
  • 05-08
  • 09-12
Minimum Delivery Time
  • 030 min(s)
Maximum Connection Time
  • 060 min(s)

Event Focus


Movies have portrayed the Orbiter (commonly called the Space Shuttle) as flying like an airplane through space and even going to our Moon. Do you think this is possible? What is the real mission of the Space Shuttle and how does it accomplish this mission? 



This module is appropriate for video conference AND web conference presentation.

For the last thirty years, the only American spacecraft for carrying humans into orbit has been the Space Transport System (STS) commonly called the Space Shuttle. Current plans are to continue using the Shuttle until the year 2010. What is the next Shuttle mission, what will it accomplish, who is on the crew, and when is it scheduled to launch?

In addition to upcoming Shuttle missions, topics for discussion will include various aspects of Shuttle flights, the dangers present during launch and landing, NASA's safety program, the large support team for Shuttle flights, the differences between the reusable Shuttle and expendable rockets, and some of the missions that the Shuttle supports, including the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.


Instructional Objectives





The learners will begin by learning that the space shuttle has been flying for nearly thirty years.


The learners will investigate the different parts that make up the space transport system.


The learners will discuss how and why the SST differs from a conventional rocket.



The learners will consider the capabilities and missions of the SST.




The learners will evaluate the usefulness and cost of the of SST missions and the future of going into space.


Sequence of Events


Pre-Conference Activities


Before the video conference, try and answer the following questions;

  1. How old do you think the Shuttle program is?
  2. How many Shuttles do you think were built?
  3. How many people can the Space Shuttle carry?
  4. Why do you suppose the Space Shuttle has wings?
  5. Does the Space Shuttle fly in space?
  6. Could the Space Shuttle go to the Moon?
  7. Why do you think the Shuttle has a large orange tank and two white external solid rockets on the sides?


Now view this video and revisit your answers. VIDEO 

How close where you? What other questions do you have about the Shuttle?




Atmosphere: the gaseous envelope surrounding the Earth; the air. The Orbiter lands by gliding through the atmosphere.

Docking: the joining together of two spacecraft in space. The Orbiter docks with the International Space Station.

Drag: the aerodynamic force exerted on an airfoil, airplane, or other aerodynamic body that tends to reduce its forward motion. Drag on the Orbiter helps it slow down in the atmosphere.

Glider: an engineless aircraft supported only by the action of air against its surfaces. The Orbiter reenters the atmosphere and lands as a glider.

Heat Shield: a protective structure of tiles, mainly on the bottom of the Orbiter, which dissipates heat on atmospheric reentry.

Orbiter: the correct name for the portion of the Space Transportation System that returns the astronauts to Earth, often referred to as the Space Shuttle.

Main Tank: the large orange tank containing the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that are burned in the main engines on take-off. It is the only major component of the Space Transportation System that is not reused.

Re-entry: the return from outer space into the earth's atmosphere. The Orbiter undergoes re-entry.

Space Transportation System (STS): NASA's space vehicle composed of the solid rocket boosters, main fuel tank, and Orbiter

SRB: solid rocket booster. These two white solid-fuel rockets are recovered and reused.

Zero G: the condition in which the apparent effect of gravity is zero, as in the case of a body in free fall or in orbit. The Orbiter orbits the Earth in free fall.


Videoconference Activities


At the start of this video conference the presenter will question the students about their knowledge of the Space Shuttle (formally called the Space Transport System, or STS) and its uses. The presenter will use pictures, graphics, and video to help students develop their understanding of the Space Shuttle.

During the video conference the presenter will start the students thinking about the forces required to leave the Earth's surface and enter into Earth orbit. He will build on the students concepts of gravity and speed by using the images projected behind him to demonstrate the launch forces that are involved in sending a massive object into orbit. The presenter will ask the students a number of questions that may include:

What missions is the Shuttle designed to accomplish? (show scale model of the Orbiter with the cargo bay doors open) The Shuttle has wings. Do these help it fly in space? (show video of the Shuttle gliding into a landing.) How is the Shuttle different from an airplane? Why is the bottom of the Shuttle black? (show sample of heat shield tile) How big is the crew and how long can it stay in space? (images of the inside of the Shuttle to show limited space and supplies)

More than half the time will be allowed for student questions. The presenter will use these questions to extend students thinking and direct them to more inquiry about the Shuttle and its mission. He will use pictures, scale models, and video to build on the key ideas from their questions and increase their understanding of STS as a system. Some of he questions that have been asked in past video conferences include:

1. Why can't the Shuttle fly since it has wings? (The Shuttle was designed to be space operational. The wings simply allow it to glide to a landing in the atmosphere)

2. Can you buy a ride on the Shuttle? (No. The Russians do sell trips to the International Space Station on the Soyuz rocket)

3. If the Shuttle is held in orbit by the Earth's gravity, why do the astronauts appear to be weightless? (Both the Shuttle and its contents are "falling" around the Earth in orbit. this causes the experience of weightlessness)

4. Why do the solid rocket boosters and the main tank come off the Shuttle? (Once they are empty of fuel there is no need to try to accelerate an empty tank into orbit)

5. Why does the Shuttle come back to Earth after only two weeks in orbit? (The Shuttle only carries enough supplies for this period of time, primarily oxygen and hydrogen for the fuel cells to generate power)

6. Why don't we use the Space Shuttle to go to the Moon? (The Shuttle was designed to operate only in low Earth orbit, not to go far out into space)

7. Do you have to be a military pilot to go on the Shuttle? (Yes, if you want to be either the commander or the pilot. Otherwise, scientists, engineers, doctors, and even teachers have trained to be astronauts. Discuss careers will follow)

At the end of the session the presenter will remind the teacher and the class of the post-conference activities and resources they can use to know more about the Space Shuttle.


Post-Conference Activities

  1. Have students revisit the preconference questions and share their questions and answers with each other.
  2. Have them prepare presentations, ads or posters that confront the most common misconceptions people have about the Space Shuttle. Rate their products based on the importance of the ideas to understanding the shuttle operation, scientific accuracy and originality in confronting the misconceptions.




Shuttle Launch Simulation Students can develop further questions about the Space Shuttle and its operation by becoming a part of the crew and going through a simulated launch sequence.


Build an Edible Space Shuttle The activity for younger students lets them learn the parts of the Space Shuttle and then eat them.


Build a Space Shuttle Glider  Make a Shuttle model and carry out three math and science challenges.


For a good interactive experience, go to:  Plan the next Shuttle Mission




NSTA Science Content Standards: 5-8


  • In most chemical and nuclear reactions, energy is transferred into or out of a system. Heat, light, mechanical motion, or electricity might all be involved in such transfers. Chemical energy is changed into heat energy to launch the Space Shuttle.



  • Perfectly designed solutions do not exist. All technological solutions have trade-offs, such as safety, cost, efficiency, and appearance. Engineers often build in back-up systems to provide safety. Risk is part of living in a highly technological world. There is a risk every time the Space Shuttle is launched.



NSTA Science Content Standards: 9-12






  • Objects change their motion only when a net force is applied. Laws of motion are used to calculate precisely the effects of forces on the motion of objects. The magnitude of the change in motion can be calculated using the relationship F = ma, which is independent of the nature of the force. Whenever one object exerts force on another, a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction is exerted on the first object. Maneuvering jets both start and stop Orbiter motion.

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Page Last Updated: September 20th, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator