The Space Shuttle was a crewed, partially reusable low Earth orbital spacecraft operated by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Its official program name was Space Transportation System, taken from a 1969 plan for a system of reusable spacecraft of which it was the only item funded for development. The first of four orbital test flights occurred in 1981, leading to operational flights beginning in 1982. They were used on a total of 135 missions from 1981 to 2011, launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Operational missions launched numerous satellites, interplanetary probes, and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST); conducted science experiments in orbit; and participated in construction and servicing of the International Space Station. The Shuttle fleet had combined mission duration of 1322 days, 19 hours, 21 minutes and 23 seconds.
Shuttle components included the Orbiter Vehicle (OV), a pair of recoverable solid rocket boosters (SRBs), and the expendable external tank (ET) containing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The Shuttle was launched vertically, like a conventional rocket, with the two SRBs operating in parallel with the OV's three main engines, which were fueled from the ET. The SRBs were jettisoned before the vehicle reached orbit, and the ET was jettisoned just before orbit insertion, which used the orbiter's two Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines. At the conclusion of the mission, the orbiter fired its OMS to de-orbit and re-enter the atmosphere. The orbiter glided to a runway landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base in California or at the Shuttle Landing Facility at the KSC. After the landings at Edwards, the orbiter was flown back to KSC on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a specially modified Boeing 747.
The first orbiter, Enterprise, was built purely for Approach and Landing Tests and had no capability to fly into orbit. Four fully operational orbiters were initially built: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis. Of these, Challenger and Columbia were destroyed in mission accidents in 1986 and 2003 respectively, in which a total of fourteen astronauts were killed. A fifth operational orbiter, Endeavour, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger. The Space Shuttle was retired from service upon the conclusion of Atlantis' final flight on July 21, 2011.
The Space Shuttle was a partially reusable human spaceflight vehicle capable of reaching low Earth orbit, commissioned and operated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from 1981 to 2011. It resulted from shuttle design studies conducted by NASA and the US Air Force in the 1960s and was first proposed for development as part of an ambitious second-generation Space Transportation System (STS) of space vehicles to follow the Apollo program in a September 1969 report of a Space Task Group headed by Vice President Spiro Agnew to President Richard Nixon. Post-Apollo NASA budgeting realities impelled Nixon to withhold support of all system components except the Shuttle, to which NASA applied the STS name.
The vehicle consisted of a spaceplane for orbit and re-entry, fueled by expendable liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen tanks, with reusable strap-on solid booster rockets. The first of four orbital test flights occurred in 1981, leading to operational flights beginning in 1982, all launched from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. The system was retired from service in 2011 after 135 missions, with Atlantis making the final launch of the three-decade Shuttle program on July 8, 2011. The program ended after Atlantis landed at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011. Major missions included launching numerous satellites and interplanetary probes, conducting space science experiments, and servicing and construction of space stations. The first orbiter vehicle, named Enterprise, was built for the initial Approach and Landing Tests phase and lacked engines, heat shielding, and other equipment necessary for orbital flight. A total of five operational orbiters were built, and of these, two were destroyed in accidents.
It was used for orbital space missions by NASA, the US Department of Defense, the European Space Agency, Japan, and Germany. The United States funded Shuttle development and operations except for the Spacelab modules used on D1 and D2—sponsored by Germany. SL-J was partially funded by Japan.
At launch, it consisted of the "stack", including the dark orange external tank (ET); two white, slender solid rocket boosters (SRBs); and the Orbiter Vehicle, which contained the crew and payload. Some payloads were launched into higher orbits with either of two different upper stages developed for the STS (single-stage Payload Assist Module or two-stage Inertial Upper Stage). The Space Shuttle was stacked in the Vehicle Assembly Building, and the stack mounted on a mobile launch platform held down by four frangible nuts on each SRB, which were detonated at launch.
The Shuttle stack launched vertically like a conventional rocket. It lifted off under the power of its two SRBs and three main engines, which were fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen from the ET. The Space Shuttle had a two-stage ascent. The SRBs provided additional thrust during liftoff and first-stage flight. About two minutes after liftoff, frangible nuts were fired, releasing the SRBs, which then parachuted into the ocean, to be retrieved by ships for refurbishment and reuse. The orbiter and ET continued to ascend on an increasingly horizontal flight path under power from its main engines. Upon reaching 17,500 mph (7.8 km/s), necessary for low Earth orbit, the main engines were shut down. The ET, attached by two frangible nuts was then jettisoned to burn up in the atmosphere. After jettisoning the external tank, the orbital maneuvering system (OMS) engines were used to adjust the orbit. The orbiter carried astronauts and payloads such as satellites or space station parts into low Earth orbit, the Earth's upper atmosphere or thermosphere. Usually, five to seven crew members rode in the orbiter. Two crew members, the commander and pilot, were sufficient for a minimal flight, as in the first four "test" flights, STS-1 through STS-4. The typical payload capacity was about 50,045 pounds (22,700 kg) but could be increased depending on the choice of launch configuration. The orbiter carried its payload in a large cargo bay with doors that opened along the length of its top, a feature which made the Space Shuttle unique among spacecraft. This feature made possible the deployment of large satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope and also the capture and return of large payloads back to Earth.
When the orbiter's space mission was complete, it fired its OMS thrusters to drop out of orbit and re-enter the lower atmosphere. During descent, the orbiter passed through different layers of the atmosphere and decelerated from hypersonic speed primarily by aerobraking. In the lower atmosphere and landing phase, it was more like a glider but with reaction control system (RCS) thrusters and fly-by-wire-controlled hydraulically actuated flight surfaces controlling its descent. It landed on a long runway as a spaceplane. The aerodynamic shape was a compromise between the demands of radically different speeds and air pressures during re-entry, hypersonic flight, and subsonic atmospheric flight. As a result, the orbiter had a relatively high sink rate at low altitudes, and it transitioned during re-entry from using RCS thrusters at very high altitudes to flight surfaces in the lower atmosphere.
The formal design of what became the Space Shuttle began with the "Phase A" contract design studies issued in the late 1960s. Conceptualization had begun two decades earlier, before the Apollo program of the 1960s. One of the places the concept of a spacecraft returning from space to a horizontal landing originated was within NACA, in 1954, in the form of an aeronautics research experiment later named the X-15. The NACA proposal was submitted by Walter Dornberger.
In 1958, the X-15 concept further developed into proposal to launch an X-15 into space, and another X-series spaceplane proposal, named X-20 Dyna-Soar, as well as variety of aerospace plane concepts and studies. Neil Armstrong was selected to pilot both the X-15 and the X-20. Though the X-20 was not built, another spaceplane similar to the X-20 was built several years later and delivered to NASA in January 1966 called the Northrop HL-10 ("HL" indicated "horizontal landing").
In the mid-1960s, the US Air Force conducted classified studies on next-generation space transportation systems and concluded that semi-reusable designs were the cheapest choice. It proposed a development program with an immediate start on a "Class I" vehicle with expendable boosters, followed by slower development of a "Class II" semi-reusable design and possible "Class III" fully reusable design later. In 1967, George Mueller held a one-day symposium at NASA headquarters to study the options. Eighty people attended and presented a wide variety of designs, including earlier US Air Force designs such as the X-20 Dyna-Soar.
In 1968, NASA officially began work on what was then known as the Integrated Launch and Re-entry Vehicle (ILRV). At the same time, NASA held a separate Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) competition. NASA offices in Houston and Huntsville jointly issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for ILRV studies to design a spacecraft that could deliver a payload to orbit but also re-enter the atmosphere and fly back to Earth. For example, one of the responses was for a two-stage design, featuring a large booster and a small orbiter, called the DC-3, one of several Phase A Shuttle designs. After the aforementioned "Phase A" studies, B, C, and D phases progressively evaluated in-depth designs up to 1972. In the final design, the bottom stage was recoverable solid rocket boosters, and the top stage used an expendable external tank.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon decided to support proceeding with Space Shuttle development. A series of development programs and analysis refined the basic design, prior to full development and testing. In August 1973, the X-24B proved that an unpowered spaceplane could re-enter Earth's atmosphere for a horizontal landing.
Across the Atlantic, European ministers met in Belgium in 1973 to authorize Western Europe's manned orbital project and its main contribution to Space Shuttle—the Spacelab program. Spacelab would provide a multidisciplinary orbital space laboratory and additional space equipment for the Shuttle.
The Space Shuttle was the first operational orbital spacecraft designed for reuse. It carried different payloads to low Earth orbit, provided crew rotation and supplies for the International Space Station (ISS), and performed satellite servicing and repair. The orbiter could also recover satellites and other payloads from orbit and return them to Earth. Each Shuttle was designed for a projected lifespan of 100 launches or ten years of operational life, although this was later extended. The person in charge of designing the STS was Maxime Faget, who had also overseen the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft designs. The crucial factor in the size and shape of the Shuttle orbiter was the requirement that it be able to accommodate the largest planned commercial and military satellites, and have over 1,000 mile cross-range recovery range to meet the requirement for classified USAF missions for a once-around abort from a launch to a polar orbit. The militarily specified 1,085 nm cross range requirement was one of the primary reasons for the Shuttle's large wings, compared to modern commercial designs with very minimal control surfaces and glide capability. Factors involved in opting for solid rockets and an expendable fuel tank included the desire of the Pentagon to obtain a high-capacity payload vehicle for satellite deployment, and the desire of the Nixon administration to reduce the costs of space exploration by developing a spacecraft with reusable components.
Each Space Shuttle was a reusable launch system composed of three main assemblies: the reusable OV, the expendable ET, and the two reusable SRBs. Only the OV entered orbit shortly after the tank and boosters are jettisoned. The vehicle was launched vertically like a conventional rocket, and the orbiter glided to a horizontal landing like an airplane, after which it was refurbished for reuse. The SRBs parachuted to splashdown in the ocean where they were towed back to shore and refurbished for later Shuttle missions.
Five operational OVs were built: Columbia (OV-102), Challenger (OV-099), Discovery (OV-103), Atlantis (OV-104), and Endeavour (OV-105). A mock-up, Inspiration, currently stands at the entrance to the Astronaut Hall of Fame. An additional craft, Enterprise (OV-101), was built for atmospheric testing gliding and landing; it was originally intended to be outfitted for orbital operations after the test program, but it was found more economical to upgrade the structural test article STA-099 into orbiter Challenger (OV-099). Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch in 1986, and Endeavour was built as a replacement from structural spare components. Columbia broke apart over Texas during re-entry in 2003. Building Endeavour cost about US$1.7 billion. A Space Shuttle launch cost around $450 million.
Roger A. Pielke, Jr. has estimated that the Space Shuttle program cost about US$170 billion (2008 dollars) through early 2008; the average cost per flight was about US$1.5 billion. Two missions were paid for by Germany, Spacelab D1 and D2 (D for Deutschland) with a payload control center in Oberpfaffenhofen. D1 was the first time that control of a manned STS mission payload was not in U.S. hands.
At times, the orbiter itself was referred to as the Space Shuttle. This was not technically correct as the Space Shuttle was the combination of the orbiter, the external tank, and the two solid rocket boosters. These components, once assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building originally built to assemble the Apollo Saturn V rocket, were commonly referred to as the "stack".
Responsibility for the Shuttle components was spread among multiple NASA field centers. The Kennedy Space Center was responsible for launch, landing and turnaround operations for equatorial orbits (the only orbit profile actually used in the program), the US Air Force at the Vandenberg Air Force Base was responsible for launch, landing and turnaround operations for polar orbits (though this was never used), the Johnson Space Center served as the central point for all Shuttle operations, the Marshall Space Flight Center was responsible for the main engines, external tank, and solid rocket boosters, the John C. Stennis Space Center handled main engine testing, and the Goddard Space Flight Center managed the global tracking network.
The orbiter resembles a conventional aircraft, with double-delta wings swept 81° at the inner leading edge and 45° at the outer leading edge. Its vertical stabilizer's leading edge is swept back at a 50° angle. The four elevons, mounted at the trailing edge of the wings, and the rudder/speed brake, attached at the trailing edge of the stabilizer, with the body flap, controlled the orbiter during descent and landing.
The orbiter's payload bay measures 15 by 60 feet (4.6 by 18 m), comprising most of the fuselage. Information declassified in 2011 showed that the payload bay was designed specifically to accommodate the KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellite operated by the National Reconnaissance Office. Two mostly symmetrical lengthwise payload bay doors hinged on either side of the bay comprise its entire top. Payloads were generally loaded horizontally into the bay while the orbiter is oriented vertically on the launch pad and unloaded vertically in the near-weightless orbital environment by the orbiter's robotic remote manipulator arm (under astronaut control), EVA astronauts, or under the payloads' own power (as for satellites attached to a rocket "upper stage" for deployment.)
Three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) are mounted on the orbiter's aft fuselage in a triangular pattern. The engine nozzles can gimbal 10.5 degrees up and down, and 8.5 degrees from side to side during ascent to change the direction of their thrust to steer the Shuttle. The orbiter structure is made primarily from aluminum alloy, although the engine structure is made primarily from titanium alloy.
The Shuttle was one of the earliest craft to use a computerized fly-by-wire digital flight control system. This means no mechanical or hydraulic linkages connected the pilot's control stick to the control surfaces or reaction control system thrusters. The control algorithm, which used a classical Proportional Integral Derivative (PID) approach, was developed and maintained by Honeywell. The Shuttle's fly-by-wire digital flight control system was composed of 4 control systems each addressing a different mission phase: Ascent, Descent, On-Orbit and Aborts. Honeywell is also credited with the design and implementation of the Shuttle's Nose Wheel Steering Control Algorithm that allowed the Orbiter to safely land at Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Runway.
A concern with using digital fly-by-wire systems on the Shuttle was reliability. Considerable research went into the Shuttle computer system. The Shuttle used five identical redundant IBM 32-bit general purpose computers (GPCs), model AP-101, constituting a type of embedded system. Four computers ran specialized software called the Primary Avionics Software System (PASS). A fifth backup computer ran separate software called the Backup Flight System (BFS). Collectively they were called the Data Processing System (DPS).
The four general-purpose computers operated essentially in lockstep, checking each other. If one computer provided a different result than the other three (i.e. the one computer failed), the three functioning computers "voted" it out of the system. This isolated it from vehicle control. If a second computer of the three remaining failed, the two functioning computers voted it out. A very unlikely failure mode would have been where two of the computers produced result A, and two produced result B (a two-two split). In this unlikely case, one group of two was to be picked at random.
The Backup Flight System (BFS) was separately developed software running on the fifth computer, used only if the entire four-computer primary system failed. The BFS was created because although the four primary computers were hardware redundant, they all ran the same software, so a generic software problem could crash all of them. Embedded system avionic software was developed under totally different conditions from public commercial software: the number of code lines was tiny compared to a public commercial software product, changes were only made infrequently and with extensive testing, and many programming and test personnel worked on the small amount of computer code. However, in theory it could have still failed, and the BFS existed for that contingency. While the BFS could run in parallel with PASS, the BFS never engaged to take over control from PASS during any Shuttle mission.
The software for the Shuttle computers was written in a high-level language called HAL/S, somewhat similar to PL/I. It is specifically designed for a real time embedded system environment.
The IBM AP-101 computers originally had about 424 kilobytes of magnetic core memory each. The CPU could process about 400,000 instructions per second. They had no hard disk drive, and loaded software from magnetic tape cartridges.
In 1990, the original computers were replaced with an upgraded model AP-101S, which had about 2.5 times the memory capacity (about 1 megabyte) and three times the processor speed (about 1.2 million instructions per second). The memory was changed from magnetic core to semiconductor with battery backup.
Early Shuttle missions, starting in November 1983, took along the GRiD Compass, arguably one of the first laptop computers. The GRiD was given the name SPOC, for Shuttle Portable Onboard Computer. Use on the Shuttle required both hardware and software modifications which were incorporated into later versions of the commercial product. It was used to monitor and display the Shuttle's ground position, path of the next two orbits, show where the Shuttle had line of sight communications with ground stations, and determine points for location-specific observations of the Earth. The Compass sold poorly, as it cost at least US$8000, but it offered unmatched performance for its weight and size. NASA was one of its main customers.
During its service life, the Shuttle's Control System never experienced a failure. Many of the lessons learned have been used to design today's high speed control algorithms.
The typeface used on the Space Shuttle Orbiter is Helvetica.
The prototype orbiter Enterprise originally had a flag of the United States on the upper surface of the left wing and the letters "USA" in black on the right wing. The name "Enterprise" was painted in black on the payload bay doors just above the hinge and behind the crew module; on the aft end of the payload bay doors was the NASA "worm" logotype in gray. Underneath the rear of the payload bay doors on the side of the fuselage just above the wing is the text "United States" in black with a flag of the United States ahead of it.
The first operational orbiter, Columbia, originally had the same markings as Enterprise, although the letters "USA" on the right wing were slightly larger and spaced farther apart. Columbia also had black markings which Enterprise lacked on its forward RCS module, around the cockpit windows, and on its vertical stabilizer, and had distinctive black "chines" on the forward part of its upper wing surfaces, which none of the other orbiters had.
Challenger established a modified marking scheme for the shuttle fleet that was matched by Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. The letters "USA" in black above an American flag were displayed on the left wing, with the NASA "worm" logotype in gray centered above the name of the orbiter in black on the right wing. The name of the orbiter was inscribed not on the payload bay doors, but on the forward fuselage just below and behind the cockpit windows. This would make the name visible when the shuttle was photographed in orbit with the doors open.
In 1983, Enterprise had its wing markings changed to match Challenger, and the NASA "worm" logotype on the aft end of the payload bay doors was changed from gray to black. Some black markings were added to the nose, cockpit windows and vertical tail to more closely resemble the flight vehicles, but the name "Enterprise" remained on the payload bay doors as there was never any need to open them. Columbia had its name moved to the forward fuselage to match the other flight vehicles after STS-61-C, during the 1986–88 hiatus when the shuttle fleet was grounded following the loss of Challenger, but retained its original wing markings until its last overhaul (after STS-93), and its unique black wing "chines" for the remainder of its operational life.
Beginning in 1998, the flight vehicles' markings were modified to incorporate the NASA "meatball" insignia. The "worm" logotype, which the agency had phased out, was removed from the payload bay doors and the "meatball" insignia was added aft of the "United States" text on the lower aft fuselage. The "meatball" insignia was also displayed on the left wing, with the American flag above the orbiter's name, left-justified rather than centered, on the right wing. The three surviving flight vehicles, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, still bear these markings as museum displays. Enterprise became the property of the Smithsonian Institution in 1985 and was no longer under NASA's control when these changes were made, hence the prototype orbiter still has its 1983 markings and still has its name on the payload bay doors.
The Space Shuttle was initially developed in the 1970s, but received many upgrades and modifications afterward to improve performance, reliability and safety. Internally, the Shuttle remained largely similar to the original design, with the exception of the improved avionics computers. In addition to the computer upgrades, the original analog primary flight instruments were replaced with modern full-color, flat-panel display screens, called a glass cockpit, which is similar to those of contemporary airliners. To facilitate construction of ISS, the internal airlocks of each orbiter except Columbia were replaced with external docking systems to allow for a greater amount of cargo to be stored on the Shuttle's mid-deck during station resupply missions.
The Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) had several improvements to enhance reliability and power. This explains phrases such as "Main engines throttling up to 104 percent." This did not mean the engines were being run over a safe limit. The 100 percent figure was the original specified power level. During the lengthy development program, Rocketdyne determined the engine was capable of safe reliable operation at 104 percent of the originally specified thrust. NASA could have rescaled the output number, saying in essence 104 percent is now 100 percent. To clarify this would have required revising much previous documentation and software, so the 104 percent number was retained. SSME upgrades were denoted as "block numbers", such as block I, block II, and block IIA. The upgrades improved engine reliability, maintainability and performance. The 109% thrust level was finally reached in flight hardware with the Block II engines in 2001. The normal maximum throttle was 104 percent, with 106 percent or 109 percent used for mission aborts.
For the first two missions, STS-1 and STS-2, the external tank was painted white to protect the insulation that covers much of the tank, but improvements and testing showed that it was not required. The weight saved by not painting the tank resulted in an increase in payload capability to orbit. Additional weight was saved by removing some of the internal "stringers" in the hydrogen tank that proved unnecessary. The resulting "light-weight external tank" was first flown on STS-6 and used on the majority of Shuttle missions. STS-91 saw the first flight of the "super light-weight external tank". This version of the tank was made of the 2195 aluminum-lithium alloy. It weighed 3.4 metric tons (7,500 lb) less than the last run of lightweight tanks, allowing the Shuttle to deliver heavy elements to ISS's high inclination orbit. As the Shuttle was not operated without a crew, each of these improvements was first flown on operational flights.
The solid rocket boosters underwent improvements as well. Design engineers added a third O-ring seal to the joints between the segments after the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
The three nozzles of the Space Shuttle Main Engine with the two Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods, and the vertical stabilizer above.
Several other SRB improvements were planned to improve performance and safety, but never came to be. These culminated in the considerably simpler, lower cost, probably safer and better-performing Advanced Solid Rocket Booster. These rockets entered production in the early to mid-1990s to support the Space Station, but were later canceled to save money after the expenditure of $2.2 billion. The loss of the ASRB program resulted in the development of the Super LightWeight external Tank (SLWT), which provided some of the increased payload capability, while not providing any of the safety improvements. In addition, the US Air Force developed their own much lighter single-piece SRB design using a filament-wound system, but this too was canceled.
STS-70 was delayed in 1995, when woodpeckers bored holes in the foam insulation of Discovery's external tank. Since then, NASA has installed commercial plastic owl decoys and inflatable owl balloons which had to be removed prior to launch. The delicate nature of the foam insulation had been the cause of damage to the Thermal Protection System, the tile heat shield and heat wrap of the orbiter. NASA remained confident that this damage, while it was the primary cause of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster on February 1, 2003, would not jeopardize the completion of the International Space Station (ISS) in the projected time allotted.
A cargo-only, unmanned variant of the Shuttle was variously proposed and rejected since the 1980s. It was called the Shuttle-C, and would have traded re-usability for cargo capability, with large potential savings from reusing technology developed for the Space Shuttle. Another proposal was to convert the payload bay into a passenger area, with versions ranging from 30 to 74 seats, three days in orbit, and cost US$1.5 million per seat.
On the first four Shuttle missions, astronauts wore modified US Air Force high-altitude full-pressure suits, which included a full-pressure helmet during ascent and descent. From the fifth flight, STS-5, until the loss of Challenger, one-piece light blue nomex flight suits and partial-pressure helmets were worn. A less-bulky, partial-pressure version of the high-altitude pressure suits with a helmet was reinstated when Shuttle flights resumed in 1988. The Launch-Entry Suit ended its service life in late 1995, and was replaced by the full-pressure Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES), which resembled the Gemini space suit in design, but retained the orange color of the Launch-Entry Suit.
To extend the duration that orbiters could stay docked at the ISS, the Station-to-Shuttle Power Transfer System (SSPTS) was installed. The SSPTS allowed these orbiters to use power provided by the ISS to preserve their consumables. The SSPTS was first used successfully on STS-118.