The Space Shuttle – A Thirty-Year Engineering Legacy


Target Audience: Students

Hosting Center(s): Glenn Research Center

Subject Category: Physical Science

Unit Correlation: Exploring NASA Missions, Exploring Engineering and Technology

Grade Level(s):

  • K-4
  • 5-8
  • 9-12

Minimum Delivery Time: 030 min(s)

Maximum Connection Time: 060 min(s)

Event Focus

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


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

For over thirty years, the only American spacecraft carrying humans into orbit was the Space Transport System (STS) commonly called the Space Shuttle. What important roles did the Space Shuttle play in placing men and materials into space?

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, some of the missions that the Shuttle supported, including the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope, and why the Shuttle was retired.

Instructional Objectives



The learners will begin by learning that the space shuttle flew for over 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 versus cost of the SST.


Sequence of Events

Pre-Conference Activities

Before the videoconference, try and answer the following questions;

  1. Why do you suppose the Space Shuttle program came into being?
  2. How many Shuttles were built?
  3. How many people could the Space Shuttle carry?
  4. Why do you suppose the Space Shuttle had wings?
  5. Did the Space Shuttle fly in space like an airplane?
  6. Could the Space Shuttle go to the Moon?
  7. Why do you think the Shuttle had 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 landed by gliding through the atmosphere.

Docking: the joining together of two spacecraft in space. The Orbiter docked 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 helped it slow down in the atmosphere.

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

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

Orbiter: the correct name for the portion of the Space Transportation System that returned 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 were burned in the main engines on takeoff. It is the only major component of the Space Transportation System that was not reused.

Re-entry: the return from outer space into the earth's atmosphere. The Orbiter underwent 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 were 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 orbited the Earth in free fall.

Videoconference Activities

At the start of this videoconference 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 videoconference 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 student’s 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 was the Shuttle designed to accomplish? (show scale model of the Orbiter with the cargo bay doors open) The Shuttle has wings. Did these help it fly in space? (show video of the Shuttle gliding into a landing.) How was the Shuttle different from an airplane? Why was the bottom of the Shuttle black? (show sample of heat shield tile) How big was the crew and how long can it stay in space? (images of the inside of the Shuttle to show limited space and supplies) Why did we retire the Shuttle?

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 allowed it to glide to a landing in the atmosphere)

2. Were you able to buy a ride on the Shuttle? (No. The Russians did sell trips to the International Space Station on the Soyuz rocket to tourists for around $30 million dollars. We are currently charged $50 million for each US astronaut they launch.)

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

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

6. Why didn'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. Did 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. Discussion of careers will follow)

8. What were the advantages and disadvantages in the design of the Space Shuttle?

9. Why have we stopped using the Space Shuttle and placed the three remaining Orbiters in museums?

10. What is the future in launching men and materials into space?

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 students think about the next step in space transportation. How should we put people an d material into space? Put your ideas on a poster for presentation to the class.


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.


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: August 29th, 2014
Page Editor: NASA Administrator