Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle was a partially reusable low Earth orbital spacecraft system 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 totaled 1322 days, 19 hours, 21 minutes and 23 seconds during missions.

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 for Approach and Landing Tests and had no orbital capability. 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??'?s final flight on July 21, 2011.

Space Shuttle
Class Aircraft
Type Utility
Manufacturer Rockwell International
Origin United States of America
Country Name Origin Year
United States of America 1981
Country Name Operational Year Retirement Year
United States of America View
ManufacturerName Production From Production To Quantity
Rockwell International View
Boeing View
Lockheed Martin View
Martin Marietta View
Alliant Techsystems View
Thiokol View
United Space Alliance View

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 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.

Function Crewed orbital launch and reentry
Manufacturer United Space Alliance
Thiokol/Alliant Techsystems(SRBs)
Lockheed Martin/Martin Marietta(ET)
Boeing/Rockwell (orbiter)
Country of origin United States of America
Project cost US$ 209 billion (2010)
Cost per launch US$ 450 million (2011) to 1.5 billion (2011)
Height 56.1 m (184.2 ft)
Diameter 8.7 m (28.5 ft)
Mass 2,030 t (4,470,000 lbm)
Stages 2
Payload toLEO 24,400 kg (53,600 lb)
Payload to
3,810 kg (8,390 lb)
Payload to
Polar orbit
12,700 kg (28,000 lb)
Payload to
14,400 kg (32,000 lb)
Launch history
Status Retired
Launch sites LC-39, Kennedy Space Center
SLC-6, Vandenberg AFB (unused)
Total launches 135
Successes 133 launches and landings
Failures 2
Challenger (launch failure),
Columbia (re-entry failure)
First flight April 12, 1981
Last flight July 21, 2011
Notable payloads Tracking and Data Relay Satellites
Hubble Space Telescope
Galileo, Magellan, Ulysses
Mir Docking Module
ISS components
Boosters - Solid Rocket Boosters
No. boosters 2
Engines 2 solid
Thrust 12,500 kN (2,800,000 lbf) each, sea level liftoff
Specific impulse 269 seconds (2.64 km/s)
Burn time 124 s
Fuel Solid (Ammonium perchlorate composite propellant)
First stage - Orbiter plus External Tank
Engines 3 SSMEs located on Orbiter
Thrust 5,250 kN (1,180,000 lbf) total, sea level liftoff
Specific impulse 455 seconds (4.46 km/s)
Burn time 480 s
Fuel LOX/LH2


  • Orbiter (for Endeavour, OV-105)
  • Length: 122.17 ft (37.237 m)
  • Wingspan: 78.06 ft (23.79 m)
  • Height: 56.58 ft (17.25 m)
  • Empty weight: 172,000 lb (78,000 kg)
  • Gross liftoff weight (Orbiter only): 240,000 lb (110,000 kg)
  • Maximum landing weight: 230,000 lb (100,000 kg)
  • Payload to Landing (Return Payload): 32,000 lb (14,400 kg)
  • Maximum payload: 55,250 lb (25,060 kg)
  • Payload to LEO: 53,600 lb (24,310 kg)
  • Payload to LEO @ 51.6° inclination (ISS):
  • Payload to GTO: 8,390 lb (3,806 kg)
  • Payload to Polar Orbit: 28,000 lb (12,700 kg)
  • Note launch payloads modified by External Tank (ET) choice (ET, LWT, or SLWT)
  • Payload bay dimensions: 15 by 59 ft (4.6 by 18 m)
  • Operational altitude: 100 to 520 nmi (190 to 960 km; 120 to 600 mi)
  • Speed: 7,743 m/s (27,870 km/h; 17,320 mph)
  • Crossrange: 1,085 nmi (2,009 km; 1,249 mi)
  • Main Stage (SSME with external tank)
    Engines: Three Rocketdyne Block II SSMEs, each with a sea level thrust of 393,800 lbf (1,752 kN) at 104% power
    Thrust (at liftoff, sea level, 104% power, all 3 engines): 1,181,400 lbf (5,255 kN)
    Specific impulse: 455 seconds (4.46 km/s)
    Burn time: 480 s
    Fuel: Liquid Hydrogen/Liquid Oxygen
  • Orbital Maneuvering System
    Engines: 2 OMS Engines
    Thrust: 53.4 kN (12,000 lbf) combined total vacuum thrust
    Specific impulse: 316 seconds (3.10 km/s)
    Burn time: 150–250 s typical burn; 1250 s deorbit burn
    Fuel: MMH/N2O4
  • Crew: Varies.
    The earliest Shuttle flights had the minimum crew of two; many later missions a crew of five. By program end, typically seven people would fly: (commander, pilot, several mission specialists, one of whom (MS-2) acted as the flight engineer starting with STS-9 in 1983). On two occasions, eight astronauts have flown (STS-61-A, STS-71). Eleven people could be accommodated in an emergency mission (see STS-3xx).

External tank (for SLWT)
  • Length: 46.9 m (153.8 ft)
  • Diameter: 8.4 m (27.6 ft)
  • Propellant volume: 2,025 m3 (534,900 U.S. gal)
  • Empty weight: 26,535 kg (58,500 lb)
  • Gross liftoff weight (for tank): 756,000 kg (1,670,000 lb)
Solid Rocket Boosters
  • Length: 45.46 m (149 ft)
  • Diameter: 3.71 m (12.2 ft)
  • Empty weight (each): 68,000 kg (150,000 lb)
  • Gross liftoff weight (each): 571,000 kg (1,260,000 lb)
  • Thrust (at liftoff, sea level, each): 12,500 kN (2,800,000 lbf)
  • Specific impulse: 269 seconds (2.64 km/s)
  • Burn time: 124 s
System Stack
  • Height: 56 m (180 ft)
  • Gross liftoff weight: 2,000,000 kg (4,400,000 lb)
  • Total liftoff thrust: 30,160 kN (6,780,000 lbf)

End notes