The Space Shuttle program was the United States government’s manned launch vehicle program, administered by NASA from 1972 to 2011 and first flown in 1981. Its official name, Space Transportation System (STS), was taken from a 1969 plan for a system of reusable spacecraft of which it was the only item funded for development.
The Space Shuttle—composed of an orbiter launched with two reusable solid rocket boosters and a disposable external fuel tank—carried up to eight astronauts and up to 50,000 lb (23,000 kg) of payload into low Earth orbit (LEO). When its mission was complete, the orbiter would re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land like a glider at either the Kennedy Space Center or Edwards Air Force Base.
The Shuttle is the only winged manned spacecraft to have achieved orbit and landing, and the only reusable manned space vehicle that has ever made multiple flights into orbit (the Russian shuttle Buran was very similar and was designed to have the same capabilities but made only one unmanned spaceflight before it was cancelled). Its missionsinvolved carrying large payloads to various orbits (including segments to be added to the International Space Station(ISS)), providing crew rotation for the space station, and performing service missions. The orbiter also recovered satellites and other payloads (e.g., from the ISS) from orbit and returned them to Earth, though its use in this capacity was rare. Each vehicle was designed with a projected lifespan of 100 launches, or 10 years’ operational life, though original selling points on the shuttles were over 150 launches and over a 15-year operational span with a ‘launch per month’ expected at the peak of the program, but extensive delays in the development of the International Space Station never created such a peak demand for frequent flights.
Although the concept had been explored since the late 1960s, the program formally commenced in 1972, and was the sole focus of NASA’s manned operations after the final Apollo and Skylab flights in the mid-1970s. The Shuttle was originally conceived of and presented to the public in 1972 as a ‘Space Truck’ which would, among other things, be used to build a United States space station in low Earth orbit during the 1980s and then be replaced by a new vehicle by the early 1990s. The stalled plans for a U.S. space station evolved into the International Space Station and were formally initiated in 1983 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, but the ISS suffered from long delays, design changes and cost over-runs and forced the service life of the Space Shuttle to be extended several times until 2011 when it was finally retired — serving twice as long than it was originally designed to do. In 2004, according to the President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, use of the Space Shuttle was to be focused almost exclusively on completing assembly of the ISS, which was far behind schedule at that point.
The first experimental orbiter Enterprise was a high-altitude glider, launched from the back of a specially modified Boeing 747, only for initial atmospheric landing tests (ALT). Enterprise’s first test flight was on February 18, 1977, only five years after the Shuttle program was formally initiated; leading to the launch of the first space-worthy shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981 on STS-1. The Space Shuttle program finished with its last mission, STS-135 flown by Atlantis, in July 2011, retiring the final Shuttle in the fleet. The Space Shuttle program formally ended on August 31, 2011.
Since the Shuttle’s retirement, many of its original duties are performed by an assortment of government and private vessels. The European ATV Automated Transfer Vehicle supplied the ISS between 2008 and 2015. Classified military missions are being flown by the US Air Force’s unmanned space plane, the X-37B. By 2012, cargo to the International Space Station was already being delivered commercially under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services by SpaceX’s partially reusable Dragon spacecraft, followed by Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus spacecraft in late 2013. Crew service to the ISS is currently provided by the Russian Soyuz while work on the Commercial Crew Development program proceeds. For missions beyond low Earth orbit, NASA is building the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft.
Conception and development
Endeavour' in orbit, 2002
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 outlined ambitious post-Apollo missions centered on a large permanently manned space station, a small reusable logistics vehicle that would support it, and ultimately a manned mission to Mars. Smaller goals included a variety of space vehicles for moving spacecraft around in orbit.
Presenting the plans to Nixon, Agnew was told that the administration would not commit to a Mars mission, and limited activity to low Earth orbit for the immediate future. He was then told to select one of the two remaining proposals. After some debate between the station and the vehicle, the vehicle was chosen; suitably designed, such a spacecraft could perform some longer-duration missions and thus fill some of the goals of the station, and over the longer run, could help lower the cost of access to space and make the station less expensive.
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, reusable solid rocket boosters, and an expendable external fuel tank for the orbiter’s main engines.
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 stated goals of «transforming the space frontier…into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor» was to be achieved by launching as many as 50 missions per year, with hopes of driving down per-mission costs.
The prime contractor for the program was North American Rockwell (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 orbiter was originally planned to be named Constitution, but a massive write-in campaign from fans of the Star Trektelevision series convinced the White House to change the name to Enterprise. Amid great fanfare, Enterprise (designated OV-101) was rolled out on September 17, 1976, and later conducted a successful series of glide-approach and landing tests in 1977 that were the first real validation of the design.
All Space Shuttle missions were launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). The weather criteria used for launchincluded, but were not limited to: precipitation, temperatures, cloud cover, lightning forecast, wind, and humidity. The Shuttle was not launched under conditions where it could have been struck by lightning.
The first fully functional orbiter was Columbia (designated OV-102), built in Palmdale, California. It was delivered to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) 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, Atlantis (OV-104) in April 1985 and Endeavour in May 1991. Challenger was originally built and used as a Structural Test Article (STA-099), but was converted to a complete orbiter when this was found to be less expensive than converting Enterprise from its Approach and Landing Test configuration into a spaceworthy vehicle.
On April 24, 1990, Discovery carried the Hubble Space Telescope into space during STS-31.
In the course of 135 missions flown, two orbiters (Columbia and Challenger) suffered catastrophic accidents, with the loss of all crew members, totaling 14 astronauts.
The accidents led to national level inquiries and detailed analysis of why the accidents occurred. There was a significant pause where changes were made before the Shuttles returned to flight. The Columbia disaster occurred in 2003, but STS took more than a year off before returning to flight in June 2005 with the STS-114 mission. The previous break was between January 1986 (when the Challenger disaster occurred) and 32 months later when STS-26 was launched on September 29, 1988.
The longest Shuttle mission was STS-80 lasting 17 days, 15 hours. The final flight of the Space Shuttle program was STS-135on July 8, 2011.
Space Shuttle missions have included:
Early during development of the space shuttle, NASA had estimated that the program would cost $7.45 billion ($43 billion in 2011 dollars, adjusting for inflation) in development/non-recurring costs, and $9.3M ($54M in 2011 dollars) per flight. Early estimates for the cost to deliver payload to low earth orbit were as low as $118 per pound ($260/kg) of payload ($635/lb or $1,400/kg in 2011 dollars), based on marginal or incremental launch costs, and assuming a 65,000 pound (30 000 kg) payload capacity and 50 launches per year. A more realistic projection of 12 flights per year for the 15-year service life combined with the initial development costs would have resulted in a total cost projection for the program of roughly $54 billion (in 2011 dollars).
The total cost of the actual 30-year service life of the shuttle program through 2011, adjusted for inflation, was $196 billion.The exact breakdown into non-recurring and recurring costs is not available, but, according to NASA, the average cost to launch a Space Shuttle as of 2011 was about $450 million per mission.
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. Non-launch costs account for a significant part of the program budget: for example, during fiscal years 2004 to 2006, NASA spent around $13 billion on the space shuttle program, even though the fleet was grounded in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster and there were a total of three launches during this period of time. In fiscal year 2009, NASA budget allocated $2.98 billion for 5 launches to the program, including $490 million for «program integration», $1.03 billion for «flight and ground operations», and $1.46 billion for «flight hardware» (which includes maintenance of orbiters, engines, and the external tank between flights.)
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 135 missions, and the total cost of US$192 billion (in 2010 dollars), this gives approximately $1.5 billion per launch over the life of the program.
In the course of 135 missions flown, two orbiters were destroyed, with loss of crew totalling 14 astronauts:
Close-up video footage of Challenger during its final launch on January 28, 1986 clearly show it began due to an O-ring failureon the right solid rocket booster (SRB). The hot plume of gas leaking from the failed joint caused the collapse of the external tank, which then resulted in the orbiter’s disintegration due to high aerodynamic stress. The accident resulted in 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.
After the loss of Challenger, NASA grounded the shuttle program for over two years, making numerous safety changes recommended by the Rogers Commission Report, which included a redesign of the SRB joint that failed in the Challengeraccident. Other safety changes included a new escape system for use when the orbiter was in controlled flight, improved landing gear tires and brakes, and the reintroduction of pressure suits for shuttle astronauts (these had been discontinued after STS-4; astronauts wore only coveralls and oxygen helmets from that point on until the Challenger accident). The shuttle program continued in September 1988 with the launch of Discovery on STS-26.
The shuttle program operated accident-free for seventeen years after the Challenger disaster, until Columbia broke up on re-entry, killing all seven crew members, on February 1, 2003. The accident began when a piece of foam shed from the external tank struck the leading edge of the orbiter’s left wing, puncturing one of the reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) panels that covered the wing edge and protected it during re-entry. As Columbia re-entered the atmosphere, hot gas penetrated the wing and destroyed it from the inside out, causing the orbiter to lose control and disintegrate.
NASA maintains warehoused extensive catalogs of recovered pieces from the two destroyed orbiters.
The accidents did not just affect the technical design of the orbiter, but also NASA. Quoting some recommendations made by the post-Challenger Rogers commission:
After the Columbia disaster, 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 Discovery, the program was grounded once again for this reason.
The second «Return to Flight» mission, STS-121 launched on July 4, 2006, at 14:37 (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 09:14 (EDT) on Runway 15 at Kennedy Space Center.
Following the success of STS-121, all subsequent missions were completed without major foam problems, and the construction of ISS was completed (during the STS-118 mission in August 2007, the orbiter was again struck by a foam fragment on liftoff, but this damage was minimal compared to the damage sustained by Columbia).
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, in its report, noted the reduced risk to the crew when a shuttle flew to the International Space Station (ISS), as the station could be used as a safe haven for the crew awaiting rescue in the event that damage to the orbiter on ascent made it unsafe for re-entry. The board recommended that for the remaining flights, the shuttle always orbit with the station. Prior to STS-114, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe 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 the launch of Atlantis for the fifth and final shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, scheduled for August 28, 2008. However SM4/STS-125 eventually launched in May 2009.
One impact of Columbia was that one the future launch vehicles planned to go into operation after the Shuttle program was concluded, was that Ares I had a special emphasis on crew safety compared to other considerations.
Atlantis begins the last mission of the Space Shuttle program
The Space Shuttle program was extended several times beyond its originally envisioned 15-year life span because of the delays in building the United States space station in low Earth orbit — a project which eventually evolved into the International Space Station. It was formally scheduled for mandatory retirement in 2010 in accord with the directives President George W. Bush issued on January 14, 2004 in his Vision for Space Exploration.
A $2.5 billion spending provision allowing NASA to fly the Space Shuttle beyond its then-scheduled retirement in 2010 passed the Congress in April 2009, although neither NASA nor the White House requested the one-year extension.
The final Space Shuttle launch was that of Atlantis on July 8, 2011. Although the retirement was planned and roughly in line with what was expected out of STS without further upgrades, the planned replacement for the STS, the Constellation program was cancelled the year before STS concluded. The two programs that took its place, two undetermined commercial crew vehicles and SLS with Orion needed even more time to have a new launcher. NASA has continued to fly to the station via its Roscosmos partner, who still has a functioning manned launcher, the Soyuz system. Manned launch systems have been proposed by other countries, such as the ESA’s mini-shuttle Hermes launched by an Ariane rocket, which was cancelled in 1992.
Out of the five fully functional shuttle orbiters built, three remain. Enterprise, which was used for atmospheric test flights but not for orbital flight, had many parts taken out for use on the other orbiters. It was later visually restored and was on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center until April 19, 2012. Enterprise was moved to New York City in April 2012 to be displayed at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, whose Space Shuttle Pavilion opened on July 19, 2012. Discovery replaced Enterprise at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Atlantis formed part of the Space Shuttle Exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex and has been on display there since June 29, 2013 following its refurbishment.
On October 14, 2012, Endeavour completed an unprecedented 12 mi (19 km) drive on city streets from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center, where it has been on display in a temporary hangar since late 2012. The transport from the airport took two days and required major street closures, the removal of over 400 city trees, and extensive work to raise power lines, level the street, and temporarily remove street signs, lamp posts, and other obstacles. Hundreds of volunteers, and fire and police personnel, helped with the transport. Large crowds of spectators waited on the streets to see the shuttle as it passed through the city. Endeavour will be displayed permanently beginning in 2017 at the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center (an addition to the California Science Center currently under construction), where it will be mounted in the vertical position complete with solid rocket boosters and an external tank.
One area of Space Shuttle applications is an expanded crew. Crews of up to 8 have been flown in the Orbiter, but it could have held at least a crew of ten. Various proposals for filling the payload bay with additional passengers were also made as early as 1979. One proposal by Rockwell provided seating for 74 passengers in the Orbiter payload bay, with support for three days in Earth orbit. With a smaller 64 seat orbiter, costs for the late 1980s would be around 1.5 million USD per seat per launch. The Rockwell passenger module had two decks, 4 seats across on top and 2 on the bottom, including a 25-inch (63.5 cm) wide isle and extra storage space.
Another design was Space Habitation Design Associates 1983 proposal for 72 passengers in the Space Shuttle Payload bay. Passengers were located in 6 sections, each with windows and its own loading ramp at launch, and with seats in different configurations for launch and landing. Another proposal was based on the Spacelab habitation modules, which provided 32 seats in the payload bay in addition to those in the cockpit area.
There were some efforts to analyze commercial operation of STS. Using the NASA figure for average cost to launch a Space Shuttle as of 2011 at about $450 million per mission, a cost per seat for a 74 seat module envisioned by Rockwell came to less than $6 million, not including the regular crew. Some passenger modules used hardware similar to existing equipment, such as the tunnel, which was also needed for Spacehab and Spacelab.
During the three decades of operation, various follow-on and replacements for the STS Space Shuttle were partially developed but not finished.
Examples of possible future space vehicles to supplement or supplant STS:
One effort in the direction of space transportation was the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) program, initiated in 1994 by NASA. This led to work on the X-33 and X-34 vehicles. NASA spent about 1 billion USD on developing the X-33 hoping for it be in operation by 2005. Another program around the turn of the millennium was the Space Launch Initiative, which was a next generation launch initaive.
The Space Launch Initiative program was started in 2001, and in late 2002 it was evolved into two programs, the Orbital Space Plane Program and the Next Generation Launch Technology program. OSP was oriented towards provided access to the International Space Station.
Other vehicles that would have taken over some of the Shuttles responsibilities were the HL-20 Personnel Launch System or the NASA X-38 of the Crew Return Vehicle program, which were primarily for getting people down from ISS. The X-38 was cancelled in 2002, and the HL-20 was cancelled in 1993. Several other programs in this existed such as the Station Crew Return Alternative Module (SCRAM) and Assured Crew Return Vehicle (ACRV)
According to the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, the next manned NASA program was to be Project Constellation with its Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles and the Orion Spacecraft; however, the Constellation program was never fully funded, and in early 2010 the Obama administration asked Congress to instead endorse a plan with heavy reliance on the private sector for delivering cargo and crew to LEO.
The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program began in 2006 with the purpose of creating commercially operated unmanned cargo vehicles to service the ISS. The first of these vehicles, SpaceX’s Dragon, became operational in 2012, and the second, Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus did so in 2014.
The Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program was initiated in 2010 with the purpose of creating commercially operated manned spacecraft capable of delivering at least four crew members to the ISS, staying docked for 180 days and then returning them back to Earth. These spacecraft, like the SpaceX Dragon V2 and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser are expected to become operational around 2017.
Although the Constellation program was canceled, it has been replaced with a very similar beyond low Earth orbit program. The Orion spacecraft has been left virtually unchanged from its previous design. The planned Ares V rocket has been replaced with the smaller Space Launch System (SLS), which is planned to launch both Orion and other necessary hardware. Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), an unmanned test flight of the Orion spacecraft, launched on December 5, 2014 on a Delta IV Heavyrocket. Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is the unmanned initial launch of the SLS, which is planned for 2017. Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) is the first manned flight of Orion and SLS and is scheduled for 2019. EM-2 is a 10-14-day mission planned to place a crew of four into Lunar orbit. As of September 2013, the destination for EM-3 and immediate destination focus for this new program is still in-flux.
Assets and transition plan
The Space Shuttle program occupied over 654 facilities, used over 1.2 million line items of equipment, and employed over 5,000 people. The total value of equipment was over $12 billion. Shuttle-related facilities represented over a quarter of NASA’s inventory. There were over 1,200 active suppliers to the program throughout the United States. NASA’s transition plan had 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 were to be under development, although these programs have since been canceled.
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.Others have argued that the Shuttle program was a step backwards from the Apollo Program, which, while extremely dangerous, accomplished far more scientific and space exploration endeavors than the Shuttle ever could.
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. Some of the most famous of the criticisms, most of management, came from Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, in his report that followed his appointment to the commission responsible for investigating the Challenger disaster.
Many other vehicles were used in support of the Space Shuttle program, mainly terrestrial transportation vehicles.
Published in October 2017.
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