Space Shuttle Program

Space Shuttle Program Insignia

NASA's Space Shuttle, officially called Space Transportation System (STS), is the United States government's current manned launch vehicle. The winged Space Shuttle orbiter is launched vertically, usually carrying five to seven astronauts (although eight have been carried) and up to 50,000 lb (22 700 kg) of payload into low earth orbit. When its mission is complete, the shuttle can independently move itself out of orbit using its Orbital Maneuvering System (it orients itself appropriately and fires its main OMS engines, thus slowing it down) and re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. During descent and landing the orbiter acts as a re-entry vehicle and a glider, using its OMS system and flight surfaces to make adjustments.

The shuttle is the only winged manned spacecraft to achieve orbit and land, and the only reusable space vehicle that has ever made multiple flights into orbit. Its missions involve carrying large payloads to various orbits (including segments to be added to the International Space Station), providing crew rotation for the International Space Station, and performing service missions. The orbiter can also recover satellites and other payloads from orbit and return them to Earth, but its use in this capacity is rare. However, the shuttle has previously been used to return large payloads from the ISS to Earth, as the Russian Soyuz spacecraft has limited capacity for return payloads. Each vehicle was designed with a projected lifespan of 100 launches, or 10 years' operational life.

The program started in the late 1960s and has dominated NASA's manned operations since the mid-1970s. According to the Vision for Space Exploration, use of the space shuttle will be focused on completing assembly of the ISS by 2010, after which it will be retired from service, and eventually replaced by the new Orion spacecraft (now expected to be ready in about 2014).

Conception (1960-1970s)

Main article: NASA Space Shuttle decision

The maiden flight of Space Shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981 (NASA). This was one of only two missions that had a painted external tank.

Even before the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, NASA began early studies of space shuttle designs. In 1969 President Richard Nixon formed the Space Task Group, chaired by vice president Spiro T. Agnew. This group evaluated the shuttle studies to date, and recommended a national space strategy including building a space shuttle. The goal, as presented by NASA to Congress, was to provide a much less-expensive means of access to space that would be used by NASA, the Department of Defense, and other commercial and scientific users.


During early shuttle development there was great debate about the optimal shuttle design that best balanced capability, development cost and operating cost. Ultimately the current design was chosen, using a reusable winged orbiter, solid rocket boosters, and an expendable external tank.

The shuttle program was formally launched on January 5, 1972, when President Nixon announced that NASA would proceed with the development of a reusable space shuttle system. The final design was less costly to build and less technically ambitious than earlier fully reusable designs. The initial design parameters included a larger external fuel tank, which would have been carried to orbit, where it could be used as a section of a space station, but this idea was killed due to budgetary and political considerations.

Early U.S. space shuttle concepts

The prime contractor for the program was North American Aviation (later Rockwell International, now Boeing), the same company responsible for building the Apollo Command/Service Module. The contractor for the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters was Morton Thiokol (now part of Alliant Techsystems), for the external tank, Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin), and for the Space shuttle main engines, Rocketdyne (now Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, part of United Technologies).

The first complete orbiter was originally planned to be named Constitution, but a massive write-in campaign from fans of the Star Trek television series convinced the White House to change the name to Enterprise. Amid great fanfare, the Enterprise (designated OV-101) was rolled out on September 17, 1976, and later conducted a successful series of glide-approach and landing tests that were the first real validation of the design.

The first fully functional orbiter was the Columbia (designated OV-102), built in Palmdale, California. It was delivered to Kennedy Space Center on March 25, 1979, and was first launched on April 12, 1981—the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's space flight—with a crew of two. Challenger (OV-099) was delivered to KSC in July 1982, Discovery (OV-103) in November 1983, and Atlantis (OV-104) in April 1985. Challenger was originally built and used as Structural Test Article (STA-099) but was converted to a complete shuttle when this was found to be less expensive than converting Enterprise from its Approach and Landing Test configuration, according to NASA. Challenger was destroyed during ascent due to O-Ring failure on the right solid rocket booster (SRB) on January 28, 1986, with the loss of all seven astronauts on board. Endeavour (OV-105) was built to replace Challenger (using structural spare parts originally intended for the other orbiters) and delivered in May 1991; it was first launched a year later. Seventeen years after Challenger, Columbia was lost, with all seven crew members, during reentry on February 1, 2003, and it has not been replaced. Out of the five fully functional shuttle orbiters built, three remain. Enterprise, which was never fully functional, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (NASA also maintains warehoused extensive catalogs of recovered pieces from the two destroyed orbiters.)

Shuttle applications

Magellan spacecraft and Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) in the cargo bay of Space Shuttle Atlantis being deployed in Earth orbit in 1989 in preparation for its trip to Venus

Current and past space shuttle applications include:

  • Crew rotation and servicing of Mir and the International Space Station (ISS)
  • Manned servicing missions, such as to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST)
  • Manned experiments in Low Earth orbit (LEO)
  • Carried to LEO:
    • Large satellites — including the HST
    • Components for the construction of the ISS
    • Supplies in Spacehab modules or Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules
  • Carried satellites with a booster, the Payload Assist Module (PAM-D) or the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS), to the point where the booster sends the satellite to:
    • A higher Earth orbit; these have included:
      • Chandra X-ray Observatory
      • Many TDRS satellites
      • Two DSCS-III (Defense Satellite Communications System) communications satellites in one mission
      • A Defense Support Program satellite
    • An interplanetary orbit; these have included:
      • Magellan probe
      • Galileo spacecraft
      • Ulysses probe

Flight statistics

Shuttle Flights Flight days Orbits Longest flight First flight Last flight Mir/ISS
STS Date STS Date
Columbia 28 300d 17h 46m 42s 4,808 17d 15h 53m 18s STS-1 Apr 13, 1981 STS-107 † Jan 16, 2003 0 / 0
Challenger 10 62d 07h 56m 15s 995 08d 05h 23m 33s STS-6 Apr 04, 1983 STS-51-L † Jan 28, 1986 0 / 0
Discovery 36 309d 09h 24m 00s 4,764 15d 02h 24m 02s STS-41-D Aug 30, 1984 STS-119 Mar 15, 2009 1 / 10
Atlantis 30 270d 05h 59m 41s 4,602 13d 20h 12m 44s STS-51-J Oct 03, 1985 STS-125 May 11, 2009 7 / 9
Endeavour 23 266d 15h 47m 08s 4,212 16d 15h 08m 48s STS-49 May 07, 1992 STS-127 Jul 15, 2009 1 / 10
Total 127 1209d 08h 53m 46s 19,381   9 / 29

(As of 8 August 2009)

† No longer in service (destroyed)

Disasters (1986, 2003)

Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986

Two shuttles have been destroyed in 131 missions, both with the loss of the entire crew (14 astronauts total):

  • Challenger — lost 73 seconds after liftoff, STS-51-L, January 28, 1986
    Further information: Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
  • Columbia — lost approximately 16 minutes before its expected landing, STS-107, February 1, 2003
    Further information: Space Shuttle Columbia disaster

This gives a 2% death rate per astronaut-flight, and an average failure rate of nearly 1 in every 60 missions. The original disaster potential, though disaster is not defined as fatal or non-fatal, was estimated during shuttle development at one every 75 missions. 87 successful missions were flown between STS-51-L and STS-107.

Status (2000-2010)

Space Shuttle Atlantis takes flight on the STS-27 mission in December 2, 1988. The Shuttle takes about 8.5 minutes to accelerate a speed of over 17,000 mph and go into orbit.

From September 2005 until early 2008, the manager of the space shuttle program was Wayne Hale. Hale then became NASA's deputy associate administrator for strategic partnerships. John Shannon, who had been Hale's deputy since November 2005, succeeded him as the Space Shuttle Program Manager.

After the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, the International Space Station operated on a skeleton crew of two for more than two years and was serviced primarily by Russian spacecraft. While the "Return to Flight" mission STS-114 in 2005 was successful, a similar piece of foam from a different portion of the tank was shed. Although the debris did not strike the orbiter, the program was grounded once again for this reason.

The second "Return to Flight" mission, STS-121 launched on July 4, 2006, at 2:37 p.m. (EDT). Two previous launches were scrubbed because of lingering thunderstorms and high winds around the launch pad, and the launch took place despite objections from its chief engineer and safety head. A five-inch (13 cm) crack in the foam insulation of the external tank gave cause for concern; however, the Mission Management Team gave the go for launch. This mission increased the ISS crew to three. Discovery touched down successfully on July 17, 2006 at 9:14 a.m. (EDT) on Runway 15 at Kennedy Space Center.

The drag chute is fully deployed in this view of the Space Shuttle Endeavour orbiter as it completes a mission of almost 17 days duration in space on runway 22 at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. Landing occurred at 1:46 p.m. (EST), March 18, 1995.

Following the success of STS-121, 11 missions have been completed without major foam problems, and the construction of ISS has resumed. (During the STS-118 mission in August 2007, the orbiter was again struck by a foam fragment on liftoff, but this was a very small damage compared to the damage sustained to Columbia.)

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, in its report, noted the reduced risk to the crew when a shuttle flies to the International Space Station (ISS), as the station can be used as a safe haven for the crew awaiting rescue in the event that damage to the shuttle orbiter on ascent makes it unsafe for re-entry. The board recommended that for the remaining flights, the shuttle always orbit with the station. Prior to Return to Flight, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin declared that all future flights of the shuttle would go to the ISS, precluding the possibility of executing the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission which had been scheduled before the Columbia accident, despite the fact that millions of dollars worth of upgrade equipment for Hubble were ready and waiting in NASA warehouses. Many dissenters, including astronauts, asked NASA management to reconsider allowing the mission, but initially the director stood firm. On October 31, 2006, NASA announced approval of a shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. The mission was designated STS-125 and launched on May 11, 2009 (after being scheduled for late 2008 and then postponed).


The shuttle program was scheduled for mandatory retirement in 2010, in accord with the directives President George W. Bush issued in the Vision for Space Exploration. The shuttle's planned successor is Project Constellation with its Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles and the Orion Spacecraft. NASA plans to launch 8 more shuttle missions before the program ceases.

In an internal e-mail apparently sent August 18, 2008 to NASA managers and leaked to the press (published September 6, 2008 in the Orlando Sentinel), NASA Administrator Michael Griffin stated his belief that the Bush administration had made no viable plan for U.S. crews to participate in the International Space Station beyond 2011, and that OMB and OSTP are actually seeking its demise. The email appeared to suggest that Griffin believed the only reasonable solution was to extend the operation of the shuttle beyond 2010, but noted that Executive Policy (ie, the White House) is firm that there will be no extension of the shuttle retirement date, and thus no US capability to launch crews into orbit until the Ares I/Orion system becomes operational in 2014 at the very earliest. He appeared to indicate that he did not see purchase of Russian launches for NASA crews as politically viable following the 2008 South Ossetia war, and hoped the new US administration will resolve the issue in 2009 by extending shuttle operations beyond 2010. Unfortunately, according to an article by former Space Shuttle program Director Wayne Hale on his official NASA blog, the space shuttle program, in preparation for the 2010 shutdown, has already terminated many specialty parts and materials contracts, many with small mom-and-pop companies whose only customer may have been the shuttle program and who closed shop and retired upon receiving their termination letters; as a result, it would be difficult and expensive at this point to extend the shuttle program, and there would be a lag of at least a year (without flights) before exhausted exotic parts and supplies could be replaced. The loss of talent from dismissed employees is another obstacle to program extension.

On September 7, 2008, NASA released a statement regarding the leaked email, in which Griffin said:

The leaked internal email fails to provide the contextual framework for my remarks, and my support for the administration's policies. Administration policy is to retire the space shuttle in 2010 and purchase crew transport from Russia until Ares and Orion are available. The administration continues to support our request for an INKSNA exemption. Administration policy continues to be that we will take no action to preclude continued operation of the International Space Station past 2016. I strongly support these administration policies, as do OSTP and OMB.

Michael D. Griffin

A $2.5 billion spending provision that would allow NASA to fly the space shuttle well beyond its scheduled retirement next year passed the US Senate Budget Committee on March 30, 2009. The provision was requested by Florida Senator Bill Nelson. The Budget Committee's decision sends a strong signal that the shuttle shouldn't be retired on a date-certain, but only when all the missions are completed. Before the Senate's budget panel's amended version becomes official, it must pass the full Senate, and then be reconciled by negotiators with the House's version of the spending plan.

NASA Authorization Act of 2008

U.S. Representative Dave Weldon has introduced H.R. 4837, known as the SPACE Act. This legislation would keep the shuttle flying past 2010 at a reduced rate until the Orion spacecraft is ready to replace it. It would allow both the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to be launched to the ISS, which the current schedule does not allow. However, it is unlikely that it would allow the completed-but-unused Centrifuge Accommodations Module (CAM) to be launched to the ISS, since the CAM is now on outdoor display as a museum exhibit in Japan.

On October 15, 2008, President Bush signed the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, giving NASA funding for one additional mission to "deliver science experiments to the station". The Act allows for an additional space shuttle flight, STS-134, to the ISS to install the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which was previously canceled.


Space Shuttle Discovery as it approaches the International Space Station during the STS-114 on 28 July 2005.

The total cost of the shuttle program has been $145 billion USD as of early 2005, and is estimated to be $174 billion when the shuttle retires in 2010. NASA's budget for 2005 allocated 30%, or $5 billion, to space shuttle operations; this was decreased in 2006 to a request of $4.3 billion.

Per-launch costs can be measured by dividing the total cost over the life of the program (including buildings, facilities, training, salaries, etc) by the number of launches. With 115 missions (as of 6 August 2006), and a total cost of $150 billion ($145 billion as of early 2005 + $5 billion for 2005, this gives approximately $1.3 billion per launch. Another method is to calculate the incremental (or marginal) cost differential to add or subtract one flight — just the immediate resources expended/saved/involved in that one flight. This is about $60 million U. S. dollars.

Early cost estimates of $118 per pound ($260/kg) of payload were based on marginal or incremental launch costs, and based on 1972 dollars and assuming a 65,000 pound (30 000 kg) payload capacity. Correcting for inflation, this equates to roughly $36 million incremental per launch costs. Compared to this, today's actual incremental per launch costs are about two thirds more, or $60 million per launch.

Assets and Transition Plan

The Space Shuttle Program occupies over 654 facilities, uses over 1.2 million line items of equipment and employs over 5,000. The total value of equipment is over $12 billion. Shuttle related facilities represent over a quarter of NASA's inventory. There are over 1,200 active suppliers to the program throughout the United States. NASA's transition plan has the program operating through 2010 with a transition and retirement phase lasting through 2015. During this time the Ares I and Orion as well as the Altair Lunar Lander will be under development.


Main article: Criticism of the Space Shuttle program

The space shuttle program has been criticized for failing to achieve its promised cost and utility goals, as well as design, cost, management, and safety issues.

After both the Challenger disaster and the Columbia disaster, high profile boards convened to investigate the accidents with both committees returning praise and serious critiques to the program and NASA management. One of the most famous of these criticisms came from Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman.

Crawler-transporter #2 ('Franz') in a December 2004 road test after track shoe replacement. STS Program mate/de-mate facility for STS Orbiter and STS Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. (Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1991)

Other STS program vehicles

Many other vehicles are used in support of the Space Shuttle program, mainly terrestrial transportation vehicles.

  • The Crawler-Transporter carries the Mobile Launcher Platform and the space shuttle from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Complex 39.
  • The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft are two modified Boeing 747s. Either can fly an orbiter from alternative landing sites back to Cape Canaveral.
  • A 36-wheeled transport trailer, the Orbiter Transfer System, originally built for the U.S. Air Force's launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (since then converted for Delta IV rockets) that would transport the orbiter from the landing facility to the launch pad, which allowed both "stacking" and launch without utilizing a separate VAB-style building and crawler-transporter roadway. Prior to the closing of the Vandenberg facility, orbiters were transported from the OPF to the VAB on its undercarriage, only to be raised when the orbiter was being lifted for attachment to the SRB/ET stack. The trailer allows the transportation of the orbiter from the OPF to either the SCA-747 "Mate-Demate" stand or the VAB without placing any additional stress on the undercarriage.
  • The Crew Transport Vehicle (CTV), a modified airport "People Mover", is used to assist astronauts to egress from the orbiter after landing. Upon entering the CTV, astronauts can take off their launch and re-entry suits then proceed to chairs and beds for medical checks before being transported back to the crew quarters in the Operations and Checkout Building.
  • The Astrovan is used to transport astronauts from the crew quarters in the Operations and Checkout Building to the launch pad on launch day. It is also used to transport astronauts back again from the Crew Transport Vehicle at the Shuttle Landing Facility.