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Space Shuttle

Buran space shuttle, space experiments, artificial satellites, reusable rocket, Westar

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Space Shuttle, spacecraft designed for transporting humans and cargo to and from orbit around Earth. The United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed the shuttle in the 1970s to serve as a reusable rocket and spacecraft. This objective differed significantly from that of previous space programs in which the launch and space vehicles could be used only once. After ten years of preparation, the first space shuttle, Columbia, was launched on April 12, 1981. Today NASA has three space shuttles: Discovery, acquired in 1983; Atlantis, which arrived in 1985; and Endeavour, which joined the fleet in 1991. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) started a shuttle program in 1988 with the Buran space shuttle, but the program was halted in 1993.

The space shuttle was initially used to deploy satellites in orbit; to carry scientific experiments such as Spacelab, a modular arrangement of experiments installed in the shuttle's cargo bay; and to carry out military missions. As the program matured, the space shuttle was also used to service and repair orbiting satellites, to retrieve and return to Earth previously deployed spacecraft, and to help build and maintain the International Space Station.

The space shuttle carries a wide range of equipment, known as the payload, into space, ranging from communication, military, and astronomical satellites; space experiments for studying the apparent weightlessness (called microgravity) experienced aboard a shuttle flight; and human experimental facilities. Often, NASA collaborates with other countries by allowing them to use shuttle cargo space for special projects.

The space shuttle is designed to leave Earth as a vertically launched rocket weighing up to 2.0 million kg (4.5 million lb) with 3 million kg (7 million lb) of thrust from its multiple propulsion systems. The orbiter segment returns from space—withstanding the intense heat when entering Earth's atmosphere. Flown by the shuttle crew much like an aircraft, the shuttle lands horizontally on a conventional airport runway.

The crew of the shuttle is an integral part of the system and is critical to the success of each mission. The flight crew is led by the commander and backed up by the pilot—both are professional astronauts and proven pilots with extensive space systems and operations training. Their primary responsibility is to fly the shuttle as a launch vehicle, spacecraft, and aircraft.

The remaining crew members—up to five more people—are responsible for the unique aspects of a particular space mission. The mission specialist is the lead astronaut and ensures that the mission meets all the objectives. Payload specialists are experts in that mission's objectives and cargo, which are usually space experiments or artificial satellites. Often the payload specialists are astronauts from other countries on board to help with a project in which their country has an interest.

Early Missions

In its first five years, the earliest space-shuttle missions made significant contributions, beginning with the first orbital flight tests of the Columbia orbiter in April 1981; the first launch of the second orbiter (Challenger) in April 1983; the first flight of Spacelab, with 71 scientific experiments from the United States and European countries, in November 1983; the first repair of a satellite in orbit (the Solar Maximum Satellite) in April 1984; the first retrieval of satellites from orbit (Palapa and Westar) and their return to the Earth in November 1984; and the first manually assisted launch of a satellite (Syncon IV-3) from space, after retrieval and repair in orbit of the satellite Leasat in August 1985. The shuttle program was suspended for nearly three years for evaluation and modification following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986.


Kohrs, Richard H., B.S.

Vice President, International Activities and Director, Center for International Aerospace Cooperation, ANSER (Analytical Services, Inc.).

Moser, Thomas L., B.S., M.S., Ph.D. Candidate

Vice resident of Aerospace Systems, ANSER (Analytical Services, Inc.).

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