The Space Shuttle
Reusable Launch System and Orbital Spacecraft Operated by NASA

The Space Shuttle
Reusable Launch System and Orbital Spacecraft Operated by NASA

As Atlantis completes its 135th and final mission, this definitive documentary charts the rise and fall of the most ambitious space programme ever undertaken: the space shuttle. For the three decades since its first launch in 1981, the shuttle has become an iconic symbol of America's technological dominance and has rewritten the rules of space travel.

It's a reusable vehicle that could lift off like a rocket, carry people and cargo into Earth's orbit, then land on a runway like a plane, and do it time after time. But two disasters, in 1986 and 2003, and the tragic loss of 14 astronauts shocked the World, and signaled the end of the programme and of an era. However, its legacy has been extraordinary.

The Space Shuttle was the first operational orbital spacecraft designed for reuse. It carried different payloads to low Earth orbit, provided crew rotation for the International Space Station (ISS), and performed servicing missions.

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 the cross-range recovery range to meet the requirement for classified USAF missions for a once-around abort from a launch to a polar orbit.

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.

Until another US launch vehicle is ready, crews will travel to and from the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft or possibly a future American commercial spacecraft.

A planned successor to STS was the "Shuttle II" during the 1980s and 1990s, and later the Constellation program during 2004–2010 period. CSTS was a proposal to continue to operate STS commercially, after NASA.

The Space Shuttle was a reusable launch system and orbital spacecraft operated by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for human spaceflight missions from 1981 to 2011.

The system combined rocket launch, orbital spacecraft, and re-entry spaceplane with modular add-ons.

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; on July 8th, 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis performed that 135th launch - the last launch of the three-decade shuttle program.

The program ended after Atlantis landed at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21st, 2011. Major missions included launching numerous satellites and interplanetary probes, conducting space science experiments, and servicing and construction of space stations.

The Enterprise was the prototype orbiter and was not equipped with engines or heat shields; it was capable only for atmospheric testing.

Five space-worthy orbiters were built—two were destroyed in accidents and three have been retired.

It was used for orbital space missions by NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, the European Space Agency, Japan, and Germany.

The United States funded Space Transportation System (STS) development and shuttle operations except for Spacelab D1 and D2 — sponsored by West Germany and reunified Germany respectively. In addition, SL-J was partially funded by Japan.

At launch, the Space Shuttle consisted of the shuttle stack, which included a dark orange-colored external tank (ET); two white, slender Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs); and the Orbiter Vehicle (OV), which contained the crew and payload.

Some payloads were launched into higher orbits with either of two different booster 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 explosive bolts on each SRB which are 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 external tank.

The Space Shuttle had a two-stage ascent. The SRBs provided additional thrust during liftoff and first-stage flight.

About two minutes after liftoff, explosive bolts were fired, releasing the SRBs, which then parachuted into the ocean, to be retrieved by ships for refurbishment and reuse.

The shuttle orbiter and external tank 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 are shut down. The external tank 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 people and payload such as satellites or space station parts into low Earth orbit, into 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 22,700 kilograms (50,000 lb), but could be increased depending on the choice of launch configuration.

NASA - Space Shuttle Documentary
Narrated by William Shatner

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 decelerates 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.

NASA retired the Space Shuttle from service in 2011, after 30 years of service. Discovery was the first of NASA's three remaining operational Space Shuttles to be retired. Michael Suffredini of the ISS program said that one additional trip was needed in 2011 to deliver parts to the International Space Station.

The Space Shuttle was originally to be retired in late 2010, but was extended until July 2011 according to the NASA launch and mission schedule.

Atlantis's Final Landing at Kennedy Space Center

One of the smallest shuttle crews in NASA history, composed of just four astronauts:
  • Christopher Ferguson (Commander)
  • Douglas Hurley (Pilot)
  • Sandra Magnus (Mission Specialist 1)
  • Rex Walheim (Mission Specialist 2)
They conducted the 135th and last space shuttle mission on board Atlantis, which launched on July 8th, 2011 and landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21st, 2011.

The STS-135 astronauts got to take a look at the vehicle that carried them on the final space shuttle mission, and paused for a moment to reflect on the journey.

"Although we got to take the ride," said Commander Chris Ferguson on behalf of his crew, " we sure hope that everybody who has ever worked on, or touched, or looked at, or envied or admired a space shuttle was able to take just a little part of the journey with us."