NASA's Columbia orbiter launches skyward on April 12, 1981 on NASA's first-ever shuttle flight, STS-1. Commanding the 54-hour mission was astronaut veteran John Young with then-rookie flyer Robert Crippen as pilot.
NASA's Columbia orbiter launches skyward on April 12, 1981 on NASA's first-ever shuttle flight, STS-1. Commanding the 54-hour mission was astronaut veteran John Young with then-rookie flyer Robert Crippen as pilot.
Credit: NASA.

This is part of a  series of articles on the Most Amazing Flying Machines Ever, the balloons, airplanes, rockets and more that got humans off the ground and into space.

NASA's space shuttle was the world's first reusable spacecraft. It launched like a rocket, and returned to Earth like a glider. It was designed to carry large payloads — such as satellites — into orbit and bring them back, if necessary, for repairs.

The first space shuttle mission, STS-1, launched on April 12, 1981, aboard the orbiter Columbia. The last shuttle to fly was Atlantis on the STS-135 mission in July 2011.

Three components

The space shuttle, officially called the Space Transportation System, was made up of three main components [Infographic: NASA's Space Shuttle — From Top to Bottom]:

  • Two Solid Rocket Boosters, which provided most of the shuttle's thrust during launch
  • The huge rust-colored External Tank, which fed fuel to the three main engines during launch
  • The orbiter, which contained the crew cabin, payload bay, and three main engines.

The Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) operated for the first two minutes of flight to provide additional thrust needed to get the shuttle into orbit. At about 24 miles (45 kilometers) up, the boosters separated from the External Tank and descended on parachutes into the Atlantic Ocean. Ships recovered them, and they were refurbished for reuse.

Each booster contained a solid propellant motor — the largest ever developed for space flight. Each motor contained more than 1 million pounds (450,000 kilograms) of propellant, a mix of powdered aluminum and oxygen.

The 15-story, rust-colored External Tank was the only shuttle component that was not reused. It fed more than 500,000 gallons of fuel — liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen — to the shuttle's main engines during launch. The tank was also the "backbone" of the space shuttle structure. It provided support for the rocket boosters and orbiter.

After the Solid Rocket Boosters separated, the orbiter carried the External Tank to about 70 miles (113 km) above the Earth. With its fuel spent, the tank separated and fell along a planned trajectory. Most of it burned up in the atmosphere, and the rest fell into the ocean.

The Orbiter is the component most people think of as "the shuttle." It was the heart and brains of the system and the actual ship that took people to space and brought them back. The Orbiter was about the same size as a DC-9 aircraft. It was 122 feet (37 meters) long and had a wingspan of 78 feet (23 m). The crew compartment, located in the forward fuselage, normally carried crews of seven astronauts, but occasionally carried fewer people. The largest crew size for a shuttle mission was eight astronauts.

The mid-fuselage housed a 60-foot (18-meter) payload bay and robotic arm. The bay could hold satellites, modules containing whole laboratories, and construction materials for the International Space Station. The aft fuselage held the orbital maneuvering system, main engines and vertical tail. Smaller thrusters located at the shuttle's nose and aft fuselage were used for small flight adjustments.

Space shuttles were used to deploy numerous satellites into orbit, including the Hubble Space Telescope. Using shuttles for this type of task meant a mission could put a satellite into orbit while performing other tasks ranging from student science projects and professional science experiments to ferrying supplies and crew members to and from the space station.

Museum pieces

NASA's fleet of five shuttles flew 135 missions before the final landing in July 2011. Two shuttles were lost in tragic accidents — Challenger exploded during launch on Jan. 28, 1986, and Columbia broke apart during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.

The other three — Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour, as well as a test orbiter, Enterprise (which never flew in space and was used for landing tests only) — will now be displayed at museums.  On April 12, 2011, on the 30th anniversary of the shuttle program, NASA unveiled the museum destinations for its shuttle fleet. [Infographic: Where to See America's Greatest Spaceships]

  • Discovery, NASA's oldest remaining orbiter, went to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum and is on display at Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Museum annex.
  • Atlantis is on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex near the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
  • Endeavour, NASA's youngest orbiter, is on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, Calif.
  • Enterprise, the test orbiter, is on display in New York City at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

— Tim Sharp, Reference Editor


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