The Space Shuttle

Because the Apollo program cost so much money (everything else either stayed in Earth orbit or burned up in re-entry), NASA began looking for a re-usable system where the spacecraft could be landed and re-launched later.


The Space Shuttle was conceived in the early 70s, with the first flight taking place in 1981.

The liquid fuel was housed in a giant orange coloured external tank which burned up in re-entry.  Only the Shuttle and the solid rocket boosters were re-used.

The Shuttle was an orbital vehicle, staying in Earth orbit, launching satellites and space telescopes, with the crew performing science experiments.

The International Space Station was built primarily with the help of the Shuttle, the Shuttle being the only spacecraft that could lift the heavy modules into place in space..

The Hubble telescope was a giant telescope in Earth orbit, taking fantastic images of deep space without the atmosphere of Earth getting in the way.  The Shuttle lifted the Hubble telescope into orbit in 1990.

Coming back to Earth, the Shuttle glided in using the Earth's atmosphere as a brake, known as aerobraking. From speeds of 18000 kph, it used its underside to slow its descent.  Unfortunately, this generated huge amounts of friction and heat.

To protect the Shuttle, thousands of heat shield tiles were glued onto the bottom of the craft, and they prevented the Shuttle melting as it descended through the incredible temperatures.


Challenger disaster 1986
In 1986, on a cold January, Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off with seven astronauts.

But at the point where the Shuttle throttled up, a frozen O-ring on one of the solid rocket boosters caused the external fuel tank to rupture and explode, killing all seven on board. The program was suspended for two years.

Columbia's re-entry and disintegration
In 2003, as Space Shuttle Columbia took off, a lump of foam insulation broke off the external fuel tank at high speed, and damaged a section of heat shield tiles on the left wing.  On re-entry, the extreme heat broke through the heat shield barrier and Columbia disintegrated killing all seven on board.

Shuttle approaches the International Space Station

Launch of Space Shuttle Discovery 2006