Space Shuttle Information

Enterprise breaks free of the Boeing 747 SCA at Edwards Air Force Base in 1977 as a part of the Approach & Landing Test Program.Enterprise during landing tests in 1977.Enterprise landing at Edwards Air Force Base in 1977 as a part of the Approach & Landing Test Program.Enterprise on the launch pad at KSC in 1979 for ground testing.Enterprise on the pad at Vandenburg Air Force Base in 1984/1985 for ground tests.Enterprise on the pad at Vandenburg Air Force Base in 1984/1985 for ground tests.Enterprise today at the National Air & Space Museum.Enterprise at the Smithsonian. Photo by Greg Jones.Columbia before the first shuttle flight in April 1981. The External Tank was painted white for the first two shuttle missions.Columbia lifts-off on the first shuttle mission in April 1981.Columbia roars towards orbit on STS-1.Columbia just after SRB sep on the first space shuttle flight on 4-12-81.Columbia touches down, completing the first space shuttle mission on 4-14-81.Mission Sequence.Challenger under construction at the Rockwell plant in Palmdale, CA.July 4, 1982: With Columbia on the ground after landing on STS-4, the SCA lifts-off with the brand new Challenger bound for KSC.In 1982, the brand new Challenger moves slowly through city streets on its way to Edwards Air Force Base in California for delivery to Kennedy Space Center.The brand new Challenger on the SCA for delivery to KSC on July 5, 1982.Challenger rolls out to the launch pad for the first time in November 1982.Challenger lifts-off for its maiden voyage on April 4, 1983.On it's maiden flight, Challenger fires a thruster to change course in Earth orbit.Challenger on the SCA passes over the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX in 1983 heading back to the Kennedy Space Center.Challenger lifts-off on its eighth mission (Shuttle Mission 19) on 7-29-85.The Space Shuttle Atlantis lifts-off from KSCThe Space Shuttle Atlantis lifts-off from KSCColumbia ferry flight to the Kennedy Space Center in 2001.SRB sep. (Photo edit credit: epower-propulsion)Endeavour roll-out to the launch pad.Atlantis lifts-off on mission 129 in 11/2009.The International Space Station (ISS) in May 2010.ISS partsThe International Space Station when completed.Columbia and Atlantis pass each other on crawler transporters in 1990.The SRB cameras capture the orbiter powering away after SRB sep.CGI of orbiter after booster sep heading for orbit.CGI of orbiter separating from ET.Atlantis rockets toward space.Shock waves are sometimes formed as the shuttle passes through the lower atmosphere.SRB sep in sequence....SRB sep in sequence....SRB sep in sequence....The SRBs fall away from the ET and orbiter.

Discovery at the launch pad in preparation for shuttle flight 100 in the year 2000.Columbia.Discovery from the ISS in August 2001Endeavour in orbit on mission STS-113 in November 2002. Image taken from the International Space Station.International Space Station in 11/2009Columbia rolls out to the launch pad in 2002.The final lift-off of Columbia on the ill-fated STS-107 mission on 1-16-03.Atlantis lands at KSC after mission 111 in October 2002.Official NASA logo of the shuttle program.Official NASA logo of the STS-114 Return-to-Flight mission after the loss of Columbia.Discovery lifts-off on the first mission after the Columbia Accident on July 26, 2005.Discovery lifts-off on the first mission after the Columbia Accident on July 26, 2005.Discovery lifts-off on the first mission after the Columbia Accident on July 26, 2005.The SRBs fall off Discovery on mission STS-116.Discovery rolls out to the launch pad on 9-20-10 for its final flight.Finale! Atlantis lifts off for the final shuttle flight on July 8, 2012.First shuttle flight in 1981 & last in 2011.Enterprise & Discovery meet for the first time in 27 years in May 2012.Enterprise arrives at NYC in May 2012 for display at the Intrepid Air & Space Museum.Enterprise on a barge bound for the U.S.S. Intrepid in June 2012.Enterprise on a barge bound for the U.S.S. Intrepid in June 2012.Ov-101 is placed on the hanger deck of the Intrepid.

A SRB falling to Earth after after helping the shuttle lift-off.Parachutes deploy to slow the SRB before it hits the water.A SRB splashes into the Atlantic.SRB falls into the Atlantic.Cutaway ViewCutaway ViewSpace Shuttle Main EngineSSME before installation in Atlantis.Main Engine being installed in Atlantis.The 3 Space Shuttle Main Engines draw fuel from the ET during ascent.SRB cutawayOrbiter diagram.External Tank cutawayEndeavour moving down the streets of LA in October 2012.Endeavour on display at the California Science Center in LA.
Photos courtesy of NASA

Space Shuttle Facts
Space Shuttle Firsts
NASA Space Shuttle Orbiter Names

Number of Spaceflights  for each Space Shuttle Orbiter
Spaceflight is a Risky Business
Space Shuttle Abort Modes/Escape System
Space Shuttle Challenger Accident
Names Proposed for the Space Shuttle Endeavour
Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

More Space Shuttle Info
Space Shuttle Diagram

Space Shuttle Orbiter DiagramSpace Shuttle Orbiter Diagram

Space Shuttle Cutaway

Click here for a larger image.Space Shuttle Orbiter Appearance

Space Shuttle Launch Profile




Space Shuttle Facts

1. The space shuttle is designed to carry people and cargo into low earth orbit. (The shuttle cannot leave Earth orbit and travel to the Moon.) The shuttle can launch satellites, space probes, and parts of a space station. It can also repair satellites and bring them back to Earth, if needed.
2. The shuttle takes off like a rocket, goes around the Earth like a spaceship, and lands like an airplane.
3. The shuttle program cost $6.5 billion, in 1972 dollars, to develop. ($33 billion in 2009 dollars.)
4. The shuttle is launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.
5. Six orbiters have been built: Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Enterprise was used for landing/ground tests, Challenger was destroyed during launch in 1986, and Columbia was lost during re-entry in 2003. This leaves NASA with three orbiters that can fly in space-Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour.
6. Two launch pads, 39-A and 39-B, are used for shuttle launches. A giant
Crawler Transporter moves the shuttle out to the launch pad.
7. The first shuttle flight took place in April of 1981 when Columbia lifted off from Cape Canaveral with Astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen at the controls.
8. The shuttle consists of 3 main parts: the orbiter, external tank, (ET) and solid rocket boosters. (SRB) The orbiter & SRB's are re-used again, but the ET falls back into Earth's atmosphere and burns up.
9. The orbiter can carry up to 7 people into orbit. Each orbiter is designed to make 100 flights each.
10. Over 16,000 people help prepare the shuttle for launch.
11. Over 1.3 million separate jobs are performed to prepare the shuttle for launch.
12. It takes about 3-4 months of constant work to prepare an orbiter for launch.
13. Each shuttle mission costs about $500 million. Missions can last from 7-16 days.
14. Each orbiter cost about $2 billion and takes 5 years to build.
15. The chance of an accident occurring during launch (in which the orbiter is destroyed, such as with the
Challenger accident) is 1 in 556, and 1 in 265 for the whole mission, by some studies. However, some estimates put the chances much higher, at about 1 in 100. By contrast, the probability of an airliner crash is around 1 in 12 million. Flying in space is very risky.
16. The 100th space shuttle mission took place in October of 2000. During that time Discovery flew 28 missions, Columbia 26, Atlantis 22, Endeavour 14, and Challenger 10. Of 100 flights, 99 landed safely. This was a success rate of 99%, better than most other launch systems in the world. However, the loss of Columbia in 2003 reduced the success rate to 98.2% in 113 missions. But it is important to remember that between 1988 and 2002, NASA flew 87 successful shuttle missions in a row. This is an excellent record when compared to other launch systems in the world today.
17. The shuttle is one of the most reliable launch vehicle ever built. No other space launch system has ever flown with only 1 accident in 100 launches. Most other systems have 3-5 accidents during this period. The Russian Soyuz spacecraft has a similar safety record. However, it is important to remember that spaceflight is still quite
dangerous. We are just learning how to travel in space like the early explorers who first ventured into the oceans. The people who fly in the shuttle are very brave people.
18. The shuttle is probably the most complex machine ever built. It has more than 2.5 million parts, including almost 230 miles of wiring, more than 1000 valves, over 1400 circuit breakers, and over 27,000 thermal tiles.
19. The orbiter has 5 computers onboard that control nearly every shuttle system. One computer can control the orbiter in case if an emergency. The failure of all 5 computers would likely result in the loss of the orbiter and crew.
20. When the shuttle is in Earth orbit, it is traveling over 17,500 miles per hour, or nine times faster than a rifle bullet. (5 miles per second!) The shuttle circles the Earth every 90 minutes.
21. The shuttle weights 4.5 million pounds at liftoff, over 3.5 million pounds of this weight is fuel that is used up in the eight and a half minute ride to orbit.
22. If the shuttle main engines used water instead of fuel, they would drain an average sized swimming pool in 25 seconds.
23. At launch, the shuttle's solid rocket boosters (SRB) burn more than 10 tons of fuel per second and produce 44 million horsepower, equal to 11,000 modern diesel locomotives.
24. The 3 main engines produce 23 times more power than the Hoover Dam.
25. The temperature inside the shuttle main engine (SSME) combustion chamber reaches 6,000 degrees F.
26. The high-pressure turbopump inside the main engines could send a column of water 36 miles into the air.
27. The blades in the high-pressure turbopump inside the main engines turn 35,000 times per minute.
28. During re-entry, the shuttle's thermal tiles heat up to over 3,000 degrees F, but the inside of the orbiter stays 70 degrees! The tiles protect the orbiter from the fiery heat of re-entry.
29. The shuttle glides to a landing after its mission on a special runway at the Kennedy Space Center. But landings also take place at Edwards Air Force Base in California if the weather at KSC is a problem. The orbiter is then brought back to KSC on the
Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, one of two modified Boeing 747 airliners.
30. There used to be 6-7 shuttle missions per year, but budget cuts have reduced this to 4-5 per year.
31. Each orbiter is taken out of service every 3-4 years for an overhaul that lasts over a year.
32. NASA retired the shuttle fleet from service in 2011 after 135 flights. It will be replaced by another vehicle, probably a capsule launched atop a rocket, by about 2015. Click here, here & here for some examples. (Keep in mind that plans seems to be constantly changing for the shuttle's replacement)




Space Shuttle Firsts
1. The shuttle was the world's first reusable spacecraft.
2. The shuttle was the first spacecraft to have wings.
3. The shuttle was the first winged craft to travel at a speed of Mach 25.
4. The shuttle was the first spacecraft to land like an airplane.
5. The shuttle was the first spacecraft to be capable of repairing satellites and bringing them back to Earth.
6. The shuttle was the first spacecraft to be capable of transporting more than three people into space at one time.





NASA Space Shuttle Orbiters

Six orbiters were built for the shuttle program. The orbiters are named after famous sailing ships or research vessels.

Enterprise: (OV-101) Named after the fictional starship in Star Trek, the Enterprise (Several U.S. Navy vessels have carried this name, as well.) was used as a test vehicle and never flew in space.  (It had been the original intention to refit Enterprise into a spaceworthy orbiter, but in 1978 those plans were scrapped when it was determined that design changes to make Enterprise spaceworthy would be too difficult and expensive) In 1977, this orbiter was dropped off of a NASA Boeing 747 jet to practice shuttle landings at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Enterprise was placed in a vibration simulator in 1978 at the Marshall Space Flight Center to make sure future orbiters could withstand the stresses of launch. In 1979, Enterprise was flown to the Kennedy Space Center and put on the launch pad for more tests. In late 1984 and early 1985, Enterprise was put on the launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to make sure the new launch site would be ready to support shuttle missions starting in 1986. (All Vandenburg launches were called off after the Challenger accident) Enterprise was retired in 1985 and donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  In 2012 ownership of Enterprise was transferred to the U.S.S. Intrepid Air & Space Museum in New York City. Enterprise was moved to the Intrepid in June 2012.

Columbia: (OV-102) Columbia was named after a U.S. Navy ship launched in 1836 that was one of the first vessels to circle the world. Columbia was also the name of the Apollo 11 Command Module that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon. Columbia also means "America". Columbia was the first space shuttle orbiter to be launched into space on April 12, 1981. Columbia was the world's first reusable spacecraft. Columbia was destroyed on Feb. 1, 2003 during re-entry on its 28th mission (Shuttle flight 113) as a result of a failure in the heat shield caused by a foam strike from the External Tank (ET) during launch. All seven astronauts onboard were killed in the disaster.

Challenger: (OV-099) Challenger was named after an American Naval research ship that explored the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the 1870s. Challenger was also the name of the lunar module used on the last moon landing on Apollo 17 in 1972. Challenger was originally built as a "Structural Test Article" (STA-099) and was never intended for spaceflight. However, when plans to convert Enterprise to a spaceflight capable orbiter fell through, it was decided that STA-099 would fit the bill nicely.  STA-099 became OV-099 and was renamed Challenger in 1979 when work began to fit it out as a spaceworthy orbiter. Challenger was launched for the first time on April 4, 1983.
Challenger flew 9 successful missions from 1983 to the end of 1985. During that time it flew more than any other orbiter, carried the first woman astronaut in U.S. history, took part in the first-ever repair of a satellite in space and was the first orbiter launched at night. Challenger was destroyed on its tenth mission (Mission 25 for the shuttle program) in 1986, 73 seconds into flight, when a failure in one of the solid rocket booster joints allowed burning solid fuel to escape and rupture the External Tank. The tank disintegrated and the escaping fuel caused the orbiter to break-up and crash into the ocean. All seven crew members perished.

Discovery: (OV-103) Discovery was named after the two ships that discovered the Hawaiian Islands, looked for a northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and explored southern Alaska and western Canada. Discovery's maiden voyage began on August 30, 1984. Discovery made the first flight after the Challenger accident on September 29, 1988. Discovery also flew the first mission after the loss of Columbia in July of 2005. Discovery holds the record of the most flights of any of the shuttle orbiters.  Discovery was retired in March 2011 after 39 flights and is now on display at the National Air & Space Museum.

Atlantis: (OV-104) Atlantis was named after a science vessel that, from 1930-1966, traveled all around the world on research expeditions. Atlantis was launched on its first mission on October 3, 1985. The final flight of Atlantis, and of the shuttle program, lifted off on July 8, 2011 and landed on July 21. Atlantis will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex in late 2012.

Endeavour: (OV-105) Endeavour was built to replace Challenger. A contest was held in schools all across the country to name the new orbiter. The name Endeavour was used by a famous sailing ship in the 1700s and the Apollo 15 Command Module. Endeavour was launched on its maiden voyage on May 7, 1992. Endeavour was retired in June 2011 after 25 flights. Endeavour was delivered to the California Science Center in Los Angeles for permanent display on October 15, 2012.

Number of Spaceflights for each Space Shuttle Orbiter


Year of First Flight

Number of Spaceflights

Current Status


1977-Landing Tests Only

(5 landing test flights at Edwards Air Force Base in 1977)

Retired. Enterprise was diplayed at the National Smithsonian Air & Space Museum from 2003-2012. Enterprise is now on display at the aircraft carrier museum U.S.S. Intrepid in New York City.




Destroyed during re-entry due to heat shield failure on Shuttle Flight 113 on February 1, 2003.




Destroyed 73 seconds after lift-off on Shuttle Flight 25 due to SRB O-ring failure on January 28, 1986.




Retired. Final flight completed on March 9, 2011. Discovery in now on display at the National Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.




Retired. Final flight completed on July 21, 2011. After retirement, Atlantis will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center in late 2012.




Retired. Final flight completed on June 1, 2011. On display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.


Spaceflight is a Risky Business

Apollo 1 Crew Photo"If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."
-Gus Grissom
(He died in the Apollo I fire along with Ed White and Roger Chaffee)

The crew of the ill-fated STS-51L Mission"I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all a part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave. We'll continue our conquest of space. Nothing ends here. Our hopes and our journeys continue.
-President Reagan
in a speech to the nation after the Challenger Disaster.

The crew of the ill-fated STS-107 Mission"In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth. These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.
All Americans today are thinking, as well, of the families of these men and women who have been given this sudden shock and grief. You're not alone. Our entire nation grieves with you. And those you loved will always have the respect and gratitude of this country.
The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on."
-President G.W. Bush on Feb. 1, 2003 after the
Columbia disaster.

"Spaceflight is risky. As America’s reaction to the Challenger disaster suggested, the loss of another shuttle orbiter and its crew would likely result in another long stand down of the Space Shuttle, causing the space program to lose momentum. It would most certainly lead to a painful re-examination of the space programs purpose and direction. Yet, as the following section makes clear, the United States should expect the loss of another space shuttle orbiter (though not necessarily with loss of life) at some time in the next decade. If the United States wishes to send people into space on a regular basis, the nation will have to come to grips with the risks of human space flight. In particular, it will have to accept the likelihood that loss of life will occur. If such risks are judged to be too high, the nation may decide to reduce its emphasis on placing humans in space."-Paraphrased from original text.
This study predicted that the shuttle had a failure rate of 2% and that "....the probability of maintaining four orbiters in the Shuttle fleet declines to less than 50 percent after flight 113." (Columbia was lost on flight 113, reducing the number of orbiters to three)
-Round Trip to Orbit: Human Spaceflight Alternatives. Office of Technology Assessment. U.S. Congress. Released August 1989.

A study by NASA in 1979 predicted that 1 in 50 space shuttle missions would be lost because of a launch accident. In addition, 1 in 100 flights would not land successfully. This put the probability that the orbiter would be recovered after each flight at 97%. Luckily, at least part of this study was incorrect and the recovery reliability of the shuttle was demonstrated to be 98.5%,
-Space Shuttle: The History of....
(Complete credit below under Sources)

"Space Shuttle operations are inherently dangerous. Failure at one of more than 6,800 single failure points can result in the loss of the vehicle or crew."
-RAND Report on Space Shuttle. January 2003.

"A ship is safe in harbor, but then, that's not what ships are for."
-William Shedd

The probability that a person will be killed in an airline crash is about 1 in 12 million. The chance of being killed in the shuttle is about 1 in 68. This is more dangerous than armed combat!
-The Flying Book and Various News Articles

"The most complicated machine ever built got knocked out of the sky by a pound and a half of foam. The message that sends to me is that we are walking the razor's edge. This is a dangerous business and it does not take much to knock you off."
-Shuttle Flight Director Paul Hill after the Columbia Disaster

"Every time we mess up (In other words, astronauts are killed), it's because something that we didn't think mattered turns out to matter. Who knew that a briefcase-size piece of foam could bring down an orbiter? The stuff that kills us isn't going to be the thing we think will hurt us."
-Mike Griffin, NASA Administrator 2005-2009


Space Shuttle Abort Modes

If a major problem develops during the launch phase, the shuttle can land at one of many emergency landing sites around the world. This is called an abort mode. Most abort modes assume a failure of one or two of the shuttle main engines. The shuttle must, of course, be intact to perform an abort. All abort modes begin only after the SRB's are separated. A major failure in the SRB's is not survivable.

Abort Modes
1. Return-to-Launch-Site Abort (RTLS): During the first 4 and a half-minutes of flight, the orbiter can turn around and land at the Kennedy Space Center.
2. Transatlantic Landing (TAL): This mode is available after SRB separation through nearly the end of the launch phase. The shuttle crosses the Atlantic and lands in Europe or Africa.
3. Abort-Once-Around (AOA): The shuttle can perform an AOA at just before the ATO phase. The orbiter enters a very low orbit, circles the Earth once, and lands.
4. Abort-to-Orbit (ATO): This mode begins roughly five and a half minutes into flight. The shuttle goes into a lower than planned Earth orbit. This was the only abort mode actually used during the shuttle program. Challenger did an ATO in July 1985 on shuttle mission 19.
Abort modes during launch. If a major problem develops during launch, the shuttle can land at emergency sites all over the world.
Space Shuttle Abort Modes Diagram

Space Shuttle Escape System

After the Challenger accident, an escape system was added to the shuttle that could be used by a crew to bail-out of an orbiter in case of an emergency in which a landing site cannot be reached. (Ejection seats are thought to be unworkable in the orbiter because the crew would be exposed to hot gases from the rocket engines after they eject) This system is very limited, however, in how it can be used. Only when the orbiter is separated from the external tank and solid rocket boosters, and in stable, gliding flight, could the crew use it to escape. (Although the system might be usable if the crew compartment was intact after a break up of the orbiter) The system is usable in the following failure modes:

1. Main Engine Failure: If more than one shuttle main engine fails within the first few minutes of flight the orbiter cannot reach a landing site and will have to ditch in the ocean. The astronauts probably could not survive a water impact in the orbiter.

2. The orbiter must make a rapid return to Earth from space and cannot reach a runway.

When the orbiter is at about 25,000 feet and moving at 230 mph, the crew turns on the autopilot and pulls a handle that fires explosives that blow off the hatch on the side of the crew cabin. Then the astronauts release a pole that extends through the hatch opening. Each crew member hooks onto the pole and, one at a time, slides down the poll and out of the orbiter. (The pole is necessary because without it the astronauts would hit the wing of the shuttle when they bailed out.) It takes a crew of seven about 90 seconds to bail out. The astronauts then parachute into the ocean to await pick-up by recovery forces. The orange, partial-pressure suit the astronauts wear during launch and landing has a parachute, raft, homing beacon, and other emergency supplies.

Although the crew can parachute to safety in a water ditching, the orbiter would crash into the sea, break apart, and sink.



NASA Space Shuttle Site
 Jenkins, Dennis R. Space Shuttle : The History of the National Space Transportation System : The First 100 Missions. World Print Limited. 2001.

 Office of Technology Assessment Archives

Copyright 2002 B. Holt. No part of the content of this site may be reproduced or retransmitted without the prior written consent of the owner. Any use or sale for profit is strictly prohibited. All rights are reserved. (Some logos and graphics used here are copyrighted by their respective owners.)

Back to Links

Back to Home Page