Facts Worth Sharing
The Space Shuttle was the world’s first reusable space vehicle. The orbiter, its 3 main engines, and twin solid rocket boosters could be refurbished and flown again.
More than 800 astronauts rode on 135 shuttle missions from 1981 to 2011. Fourteen perished during two tragic accidents in 1986 and 2003.
The shuttle launched numerous space science missions, including Galileo to Jupiter, Magellan to Venus, and the Hubble Space Telescope. It also helped build the International Space Station.
Why the Space Shuttle Happened
Columbia. Challenger. Discovery. Atlantis. Endeavour.
NASA's five Space Shuttles are arguably the world’s most recognizable space vehicles. From 1981 to 2011, more than 800 people rode in the iconic orbiters, diversifying NASA’s astronaut corps and inspiring new generations to pursue space science-related careers.
The shuttle program was wildly ambitious, beginning a mere a decade years after the first person flew into space. Unlike the gumdrop-shaped capsules that preceded it, the shuttle carried its crew back to Earth upright and landed gently on a runway like a plane. It was the world’s first reusable spacecraft: the orbiter, its 3 main engines, and twin solid rocket boosters could be refurbished and flown again. Only the shuttle’s orange-brown external fuel tank couldn’t be recovered.
NASA originally envisioned the shuttle as just one piece of a grand plan to expand humanity’s presence into the solar system, including Mars. But those dreams did not mesh with the Nixon administration’s post-Apollo, pragmatic approach to spaceflight, which saw the agency as just another government program competing for resources.
Budget constraints, along with a promise that the shuttle’s reusability and high flight rate would reduce the cost of spaceflight, cemented its place as the future of human spaceflight. It first flew in 1981 following a development cost of almost $47 billion.
The Space Shuttle operated as a multipurpose space truck that could launch civilian, military, and commercial payloads to space. Policymakers were so confident of the vehicle’s capabilities that for a time, the U.S. adhered to a shuttle-only launch policy for all space missions. (To learn how this decision jeopardized NASA’s planetary science program, we recommend Planetary Society co-founder Bruce Murray’s 1981 book Journey Into Space.)
A second shuttle launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California would have enabled polar-orbiting missions. It was almost ready for operations when the tragic loss of Space Shuttle Challenger and its 7 crewmembers in 1986 prompted officials to scale back the program. The Vandenberg launch site was scrapped, the U.S. turned back to expendable rockets for launches that didn’t require a crew, and the shuttle soon stopped carrying commercial and military payloads.
The Space Shuttle’s scientific achievements include launching NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Magellan mission to Venus. It deployed the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990 and carried astronauts to it five more times for repairs and upgrades. The shuttle also launched the majority of International Space Station (ISS) modules and was used for station assembly and repair missions.
The gut-wrenching destruction of a second Space Shuttle, Columbia, in 2003 set in motion a plan to complete the ISS, retire the shuttles, and redirect NASA’s human spaceflight program back to the Moon. The last shuttle mission flew in 2011, leaving the U.S. without a crewed launch vehicle for 9 years until SpaceX’s Crew Dragon carried two astronauts to the ISS in 2020. Shuttle-derived technology—particularly, the shuttle’s main engines—is now used for NASA’s Space Launch System, the cornerstone vehicle of the agency’s Artemis program.
The shuttle’s legacy is complex: It never lived up to its promise of enabling fast, affordable space travel. Between 1972 and 1982, NASA spent approximately $10.6 billion to develop the space shuttle and its related facilities. By the end of the program, it cost roughly $766 million per flight when accounting for overhead costs. Nevertheless, the shuttles made impressive scientific, technological, and cultural achievements. The most well-traveled shuttle, Discovery, flew 39 times—a record that will stand for years to come.
How the Space Shuttle Worked
The Space Shuttle launched vertically like a rocket and returned to Earth horizontally like a plane. The black-and-white orbiter had 3 powerful engines fed by an enormous external fuel tank. Two solid rocket boosters attached to the tank provided the extra thrust needed to lift the shuttle out of Earth’s lower atmosphere.
The boosters burned out and separated about two minutes into flight, parachuting into the Atlantic Ocean for recovery and refurbishment. Once in space, the shuttle discarded the external fuel tank; the tank tumbled back into Earth’s atmosphere a half-orbit later for destructive reentry.
Riding the boosters This NASA video shows a space shuttle launch from the perspective of cameras and microphones mounted on the vehicle's solid rocket boosters. The shuttle's boosters parachuted back to Earth after each launch and splashed down into the ocean, where they were recovered by ships for reuse.Video: NASA
In orbit, the shuttle maneuvered using a series of small thrusters. Two larger in-space engines made orbital changes and slowed the shuttle down when it was time to return to Earth.
The shuttle could carry more than 24 metric tons to space inside its cargo bay, and return roughly half that much to Earth. It could capture satellites and repair them using its cargo bay as a workspace for astronauts. This capability was vital for repair missions to the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction of the ISS.
The cargo bay could also be outfitted with a pressurized laboratory module that allowed astronauts to conduct physical science experiments and technology demonstrations. When visiting the ISS and Russia’s predecessor space station, Mir, the shuttle carried a docking adapter in its cargo bay.
Like all vehicles returning from space, the shuttle heated up due to the compression and friction of air molecules hitting the vehicle at high speeds. Ceramic tiles on the shuttle’s belly and carbon-reinforced wings allowed it to withstand this heat. Although the shuttle landed like a plane, it did not use engines during its return to Earth, effectively making it a glider with only one chance to hit the runway.
On 28 January 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger launched amid unusually cold temperatures, despite objections from engineers. A rubber ring on one of Challenger’s solid rocket boosters failed to seal properly due to the cold, allowing hot gas to escape and burn through the external fuel tank. The tank broke apart 73 seconds into flight, destroying the orbiter and killing the crew.
An unusually high number of Americans including schoolchildren saw the traumatic event live because one of the passengers, grade school teacher Christa McAuliffe, was aboard the flight as part of NASA’s Teacher in Space program.
No shuttles flew for 2 years while NASA redesigned the boosters. The accident also prompted the U.S. to phase out future commercial and military flights.
Disaster struck again on 1 February 2003, as Space Shuttle Columbia returned from space. Unlike traditional space capsules that launch with their heat shields enclosed against the top of their rockets, the shuttle’s brittle wings and underbelly were exposed to the elements during their ride to orbit.
During Columbia’s launch, a large piece of foam insulation broke loose from the external fuel tank and struck the shuttle’s wing. During reentry hot atmospheric gases seeped through the damaged wing, causing Columbia to break apart 60 kilometers (40 miles) above Texas while gliding to Florida. All 7 crewmembers perished in what became a gut-wrenching repeat of the Challenger accident. Once again NASA grounded all shuttle flights to fix the problem.
After their retirement in 2011, NASA donated the remaining Space Shuttle orbiters to museums. Discovery sits outside Washington, D.C. at the National Air and Space Museum, Atlantis is on display at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and Endeavour can be found at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.