What Is the Space Shuttle?
A space shuttle launch

A space shuttle launches into space from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Image Credit: NASA
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The space shuttle was made to take astronauts and cargo to and from Earth orbit. The first space shuttle flight took place in 1981. NASA plans to quit flying the shuttle in 2011. By then, it will have launched more than 130 times!

What Can the Space Shuttle Do?
The space shuttle normally takes as many as seven astronauts to and from space. The space shuttle has done many kinds of jobs. It has launched satellites from its cargo bay. It has been a science laboratory while orbiting Earth. Its crews have fixed other spacecraft, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. Today, the space shuttle is used mostly 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. It is the only part of the shuttle that goes into orbit. The orbiter is where the crew members live and work. It also has a payload bay for taking cargo into orbit. The second part of the shuttle is the external tank. This large, orange fuel tank connects to the bottom of the orbiter for launch. The third part is really two pieces. Two white solid rocket boosters send out most of the thrust for the first two minutes of a shuttle launch. The solid rocket boosters are long and thin.

The shuttle on the launch pad

This photograph shows the shuttle orbiter, solid rocket boosters and external tank. Image Credit: NASA
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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 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 about another six minutes. The external tank is dropped when all the fuel has been used. Shortly after this happens the shuttle and crew are in orbit.

The orbiter lands like a glider. While in orbit it fires its engines to slow down and stop orbiting. After it re-enters Earth's atmosphere, it glides in for a landing on a runway.

How Many Orbiters Are There?
Today, three orbiters 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. Now it's at a Smithsonian Museum center near Washington, D.C.

A space shuttle landing

The space shuttle lands as a glider at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Image Credit: NASA
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Related Resources
Space Shuttle Program
Space Shuttle Flight History
Space Shuttle Basics   →
Space Shuttle Launch and Landing
Orbiter Vehicles   →

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