The Space Shuttle was a partially reusable human spaceflight vehicle capable of reaching low Earth orbit, commissioned and operated by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from 1981 to 2011. It resulted from shuttle design studies conducted by NASA and the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s and was first proposed for development as part of an ambitious second-generation Space Transportation System (STS) of space vehicles to follow the Apollo program in a September 1969 report of a Space Task Group headed by Vice President Spiro Agnew to President Richard Nixon. Nixon's post-Apollo NASA budgeting withdrew support of all system components except the Shuttle, to which NASA applied the STS name.
The vehicle consisted of a spaceplane for orbit and re-entry, fueled from an expendable External Tank containing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, with two reusable strap-on solid rocket boosters. 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, with Atlantis making the final launch of the three-decade Shuttle program on July 8, 2011. The program ended after Atlantis landed at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011. Major missions included launching numerous satellites and interplanetary probes, conducting space science experiments, and servicing and construction of space stations. The first orbiter vehicle, named Enterprise, was used in the initial Approach and Landing Tests phase but installation of engines, heat shielding, and other equipment necessary for orbital flight was cancelled. A total of five operational orbiters were built, and of these, two were destroyed in accidents.
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 Shuttle development and operations except for the Spacelab modules used on D1 and D2—sponsored by Germany. SL-J was partially funded by Japan.
Shuttle approach and landing test crews, 1976
Early concept for a space shuttle refueling a space tug, 1970
At launch, it consisted of the "stack", including the dark orange external tank (ET) (for the first two launches the tank was painted white); two white, slender solid rocket boosters (SRBs); and the Orbiter Vehicle, which contained the crew and payload. Some payloads were launched into higher orbits with either of two different upper 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 frangible nuts on each SRB, which were 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 ET. The Space Shuttle had a two-stage ascent. The SRBs provided additional thrust during liftoff and first-stage flight. About two minutes after liftoff, frangible nuts were fired, releasing the SRBs, which then parachuted into the ocean, to be retrieved by NASA recovery ships for refurbishment and reuse. The orbiter and ET 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 were shut down. The ET, attached by two frangible nuts 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 astronauts and payloads such as satellites or space station parts into low Earth orbit, 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 50,045 pounds (22,700 kg) but could be increased depending on the choice of launch configuration. 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 decelerated 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 conventional aircraft. 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.