National Space Transportation System - Overview, September 1988






[1] The Space Shuttle is developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA coordinates and manages the Space Transportation System (NASA's name for the overall Shuttle program), including intergovernmental agency requirements and international and joint projects. NASA also oversees the launch and space flight requirements for civilian and commercial use.

The Space Shuttle system consists of four primary elements: an orbiter spacecraft, two Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB), an external tank to house fuel and oxidizer and three Space Shuttle main engines.

The orbiter is built by Rockwell International's Space Transportation Systems Division, Downey, Calif., which also has responsibility for the integration of the overall space transportation system. Both orbiter and integration contracts are under the direction of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

The SRB motors are built by the Wasatch Division of Morton Thiokol Corp., Brigham City, Utah, and are assembled, checked out and refurbished by United Space Boosters Inc., Booster Production Co., Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Fla. The external tank is built by Martin Marietta Corp. at its Michoud facility, New Orleans, La., and the Space Shuttle main engines are built by Rockwell's Rocketdyne Division, Canoga Park, Calif. These contracts are under the direction of NASA's George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.



The Shuttle will transport cargo into near Earth orbit 100 to 217 nautical miles (115 to 250 statute miles) above the Earth. This cargo -- or payload -is carried in a bay 15 feet in diameter and 60 ft long.

Major system requirements are that the orbiter and the two solid rocket boosters be reusable.


Other features of the Shuttle:

The orbiter has carried a flight crew of up to eight persons. A total of 10 persons could be carried under emergency conditions The basic mission is 7 days in space. The crew compartment has a shirtsleeve environment, and the acceleration load is never greater than 3 Gs. In its return to Earth, the orbiter has a cross-range maneuvering capability of 1,100 nautical miles (1,265 statute miles).

The Space Shuttle is launched in an upright position, with thrust provided by the three Space Shuttle engines and the two SRB. After about 2 minutes, the two boosters are spent and are separated from the external tank. They fall into the ocean at predetermined points and are recovered for reuse.



Overall ShuttIe




184.2 feet

122.17 feet


76.6 feet

56.67 feet



78.06 feet

Approximate weight

Gross litt-off, which will vary depending on payload weight and onboard consumables

4.5 million pounds


Nominal end-of-mission landing with payload, which will vary depending on payload return weight


230 000 pounds

Thrust (sea level)

Solid rocket boosters

3,300,000 pounds of thrust each in vacuum


Orbiter main engines


393,800 pounds of thrust each at sea level at 104 percent

Cargo bay



60 feet



15 feet

Space Shuttle Program


The Space Shuttle main engines continue firing for about 8 minutes. They shut down just before the craft is inserted into orbit. The external tank is then separated from the orbiter. It follows a ballistic trajectory into a remote area of the ocean but is not recovered.

There are 38 primary Reaction Control System (RCS) engines and six vernier RCS engines located on the orbiter. The first use of selected primary reaction control system engines occurs at orbiter/external tank separation. The selected [2] primary reaction control system engines are used in the separation sequence to provide an attitude hold for separation. Then they move the orbiter away from the external tank to ensure orbiter clearance from the arc of the rotating external tank. Finally, they return to an attitude hold prior to the initiation of the firing of the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines to place the orbiter into orbit.

The primary and/or vernier RCS engines are used normally on orbit to provide attitude pitch, roll and yaw maneuvers as well as translation maneuvers.


Space Shuttle Statistics

Space Shuttle Statistics


The two OMS engines are used to place the orbiter on orbit, for major velocity maneuvers on orbit and to slow the orbiter for reentry, called the deorbit maneuver. Normally, two OMS engine thrusting sequences are used to place the orbiter on orbit, and only one thrusting sequence is used for deorbit.

The orbiter's velocity on orbit is approximately 25,405 feet per second (17,322 statute miles per hour). The deorbit maneuver decreases this velocity approximately 300 fps (205 mph) for reentry.

In some missions, only one OMS thrusting sequence is used to place the orbiter on orbit. This is referred to as direct insertion. Direct insertion is a technique used in some missions where there are high-performance requirements, such as a heavy payload or a high orbital altitude. This technique uses the Space Shuttle main engines to achieve the desired apogee (high point in an orbit) altitude, thus conserving orbital maneuvering system propellants. Following jettison of the external [3] tank, only one OMS thrusting sequence is required to establish the desired orbit altitude.

For deorbit, the orbiter is rotated tail first in the direction of the velocity by the primary reaction control system engines. Then the OMS engines are used to decrease the orbiter's velocity.

During the initial entry sequence, selected primary RCS engines are used to control the orbiter's attitude (pitch, roll and yaw). As aerodynamic pressure builds up, the orbiter flight control surfaces become active and the primary reaction control system engines are inhibited.

During entry, the thermal protection system covering the entire orbiter provides the protection for the orbiter to survive the extremely high temperatures encountered during entry. The thermal protection system is reusable (it does not bum off or ablate during entry).

The unpowered orbiter glides to Earth and lands on a runway like an airplane. Nominal touchdown speed varies from 184 to 196 knots (213 to 225 miles per hour).

The main landing gear wheels have a braking system for stopping the orbiter on the runway, and the nose wheel is steerable, again similar to a conventional airplane.

There are two launch sites for the Space Shuttle. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida is used for launches to place the orbiter in equatorial orbits (around the equator), and Vandenberg Air Force Base launch site in California will be used for launches that place the orbiter in polar orbit missions.

Landing sites are located at the KSC and Vandenberg. Additional landing sites are provided at Edwards Air Force Base in California and White Sands, N.M. Contingency landing sites are also provided in the event the orbiter must return to Earth in an emergency.



Space Shuttles destined for equatorial orbits are launched from the KSC, and those requiring polar orbital planes will be launched from Vandenberg.

Orbital mechanics and the complexities of mission requirements, plus safety and the possibility of infringement on foreign air and land space, prohibit polar orbit launches from the KSC.

Kennedy Space Center launches have an allowable path no less than 35 degrees northeast and no greater than 120 degrees southeast. These are azimuth degree readings based on due east from KSC as 90 degrees.

A 35-degree azimuth launch places the spacecraft in an orbital inclination of 57 degrees. This means the spacecraft in its orbital trajectories around the Earth will never exceed an Earth latitude higher or lower than 57 degrees north or south of the equator.

A launch path from KSC at an azimuth of 120 degrees will place the spacecraft in an orbital inclination of 39 degrees (it will be above or below 39 degrees north or south of the equator).


Space Shuttle Launch Sites

Space Shuttle Launch Sites


These two azimuths - 35 and 120 degrees - represent the launch limits from the KSC. Any azimuth angles further north or south would launch a spacecraft over a habitable land mass, adversely affect safety provisions for abort or vehicle separation conditions, or present the undesirable possibility that the SRB or external tank could land on foreign land or sea space.

Launches from Vandenberg have an allowable launch path suitable for polar insertions south, southwest and southeast.

[4] The launch limits at Vandenberg are 201 and 158 degrees. At a 201-degree launch azimuth, the spacecraft would be orbiting at a 104-degree inclination. Zero degrees would be due north of the launch site, and the orbital trajectory would be within 14 degrees east or west of the north-south pole meridian. At a launch azimuth of 158 degrees, the spacecraft would be orbiting at a 70 degree inclination, and the trajectory would be within 20 degrees east or west of the polar meridian. Like KSC, Vandenberg has allowable launch azimuths that do not pass over habitable areas or involve safety, abort, separation and political considerations.

Mission requirements and payload weight penalties also are major factors in selecting a launch site.

The Earth rotates from west to east at a speed of approximately 900 nautical miles per hour (1,035 mph). A launch to the east uses the Earth's rotation somewhat as a springboard. The Earth's rotational rate also is the reason the orbiter has a [MISSING TEXT- Chris Gamble, html editor]

Attempting to launch and place a spacecraft in polar orbit from KSC to avoid habitable land mass would be uneconomical because the Shuttle's payload would be reduced severely-down to approximately 17,000 pounds. A northerly launch into polar orbit of 8 to 20 degrees azimuth would necessitate a path over a land mass; and most safety, abort, and political constraints would have to be waived. This prohibits polar orbit launches from the KSC.

NASA's latest assessment of orbiter ascent and landing weights incorporates currently.....


Abort and Normal Mission Profile

Abort and Normal Mission Profile


.....approved modifications to all vehicle elements, including crew escape provisions, and assumes a maximum Space Shuttle main engine throttle setting of 104 percent. It is noted that the resumption of Space Shuttle flights initially [5] requires more conservative flight design criteria and additional instrumentation, which reduces the following basic capabilities by approximately 1,600 pounds:



The payload capability for the same satellite deploy mission with a 57-degree inclination is 41,000 pounds.

The performance for intermediate inclinations can be estimated by allowing 500 pounds per degree of plane change between 28.5 and 57 degrees.

If OV-102 (Columbia) is used, the cargo-lift weight capability must be decreased by approximately 8,400 pounds. This weight difference is attributed to an approximately 7,150 pound difference in inert weight, 850 pounds of orbiter experiments, 300 pounds of additional thermal protection system and 100 pounds to accommodate a fifth cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tank set for the power reactant storage and distribution system.





On July 26, 1972, NASA selected Rockwell's Space Transportation Systems Division in Downey, Calif., as the industrial contractor for the design, development, test and evaluation of the orbiter. The contract called for fabrication and testing of two orbiters, a full-scale structural test article, and a main propulsion test article. The award followed years of NASA and Air Force studies to define and assess the feasibility of a reusable space transportation system.

NASA previously (March 31, 1972) had selected Rockwell's Rocketdyne Division to design and develop the Space Shuttle main engines. Contracts followed to Martin Marietta for the external tank (Aug. 16, 1973) and Morton Thiokol's Wasatch Division for the solid rocket boosters (June 27, 1974).

In addition to the orbiter DDT&E contract, Rockwell's Space Transportation Systems Division was given contractual responsibility as system integrater for the overall Shuttle system.

Rockwell's Launch Operations, part of the Space Transportation Systems Division, was under contract to NASA's Kennedy Space Center for turnaround, processing, prelaunch testing, and launch and recovery operations from STS- 1 through the STS-11 mission.

On Oct. 1, 1983, the Lockheed Space Operations Co. was awarded the Space Shuttle processing contract at KSC for turnaround processing, prelaunch testing, and launch and recovery operations.

[6] The first orbiter spacecraft, Enterprise (OV-101), was rolled out on Sept. 17, 1976. On Jan. 31, 1977, it was transported 38 miles overland from Rockwell's assembly facility at Palmdale, Calif., to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base for the Approach and Landing Test (ALT) program.

The 9-month-long ALT program was conducted from February through November 1977 at Dryden and demonstrated the orbiter could fly in the atmosphere and land like an airplane except without power, a gliding flight.

The ALT program involved ground tests and flight tests.

The ground tests included taxi tests of the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) with the Enterprise mated atop the SCA to determine structural loads and responses and assess the mated capability in ground handling and control characteristics up to flight takeoff speed. The taxi tests also validated 747 steering and braking with the orbiter attached. A ground test of orbiter systems followed the unmanned captive tests. All orbiter systems were activated as they would be in atmospheric flight. This was the final preparation for the manned captive-flight phase.

Five captive flights of the Enterprise mounted atop the SCA with the Enterprise unmanned and Enterprise systems inert were conducted to assess the structural integrity and performance-handling qualities of the mated craft.

Three manned captive flights that followed the five unmanned captive flights included an astronaut crew aboard the orbiter operating its flight control systems while the orbiter remained perched atop the SCA. These flights were designed to exercise and evaluate all systems in the flight environment in preparation for the orbiter release (free) flights. They included flutter tests of the mated craft at low and high speed, a separation trajectory test and a dress rehearsal for the first orbiter free flight.

In the five free flights the astronaut crew separated the spacecraft from the SCA and maneuvered to a landing at Edwards Air Force Base. In the first four such flights the landings were on a dry lake bed; in the fifth, the landing was on Edwards' main concrete runway under conditions simulating a return from space. The last two free flights were made without the tail cone, which is the spacecraft's configuration during an actual landing from Earth orbit. These flights verified the orbiter's pilot-guided approach and landing capability; demonstrated the orbiter's subsonic terminal area energy management autoland approach capability; and verified the orbiter's subsonic airworthiness, integrated system operations and selected subsystems in preparation for the first manned orbital flight. The flights demonstrated the orbiter's ability to approach and land safely with a minimum gross weight and using several center-of-gravity

For all of the captive flights and the first three free flights, the orbiter was outfitted with a tail cone covering its aft section to reduce aerodynamic drag and turbulence. The final two free flights were without the tail cone, and the three simulated Space Shuttle main engines and two orbital maneuvering system engines were exposed aerodynamically.

The final phase of the ALT program prepared the spacecraft for four ferry flights. Fluid systems were drained and purged, the tail cone was reinstalled and elevon locks were installed.

The forward attachment strut was replaced to lower the orbiter's cant from 6 to 3 degrees. This reduces drag to the mated vehicles during the ferry flights.

After the ferry flight tests, OV-101 was returned to the NASA hangar at Dryden and modified for vertical ground vibration tests at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

On March 13, 1978, the Enterprise was ferried atop the SCA to MSFC. At Marshall, Enterprise was mated with the external tank and SRB and subjected to a series of vertical ground vibration tests. These tested the mated configuration's critical structural dynamic response modes, which were assessed against analytical math models used to design the various element interfaces.

These were completed in March 1979. On April 10, 1979 the Enterprise was ferried to Kennedy Space Center, mated with the external tank and SRB and transported via the mobile launcher platform to Launch Complex 39-A. At [7] Launch Complex 39-A, the Enterprise served as a practice and launch complex fit-check verification tool representing the flight vehicles.

It was ferried back to Dryden at Edwards AFB in California on Aug. 16, 1979, and then resumed overland to Rockwell's Palmdale final assembly facility on Oct. 30, 1979. Certain components were refurbished for use on flight vehicles being assembled at Palmdale. The Enterprise was then resumed overland to Dryden on Sept. 6, 1981.

During exhibition at the Paris, May and June 1983, Enterprise was ferried to France for the Air Show as well as to Germany, Italy, England and Canada before resuming to Dryden.

From April to October 1984, Enterprise was ferried to Vandenberg AFB and to Mobile, Ala., where it was taken by barge to New Orleans, La., for the United States 1984 World's Fair.

In November 1984 it was transported to Vandenberg and used as a practice and fit-check verification tool. On May 24, 1985, Enterprise was ferried from Vandenberg to Dryden.

On Sept. 20, 1985, Enterprise was ferried from Dryden Flight Research Facility to KSC. On Nov. 18, 1985, Enterprise was ferried from KSC to Dulles Airport, Washington, D.C., and became the property of the Smithsonian Institution. The Enterprise was built as a test vehicle and is not equipped for space flight.

The second orbiter, Columbia (OV-102), was the first to fly into space. It was transported overland on March 8, 1979, from Palmdale to Dryden for mating atop the SCA and ferried to KSC. It arrived on March 25, 1979, to begin preparations for the first flight into space.

The structural test article, after 11 months of extensive testing at Lockheed's facility in Palmdale, was resumed to Rockwell's Palmdale facility for modification to become the second orbiter available for operational missions. it was redesignated OV-099, the Challenger.

The main propulsion test article (MPTS-098) consisted of an orbiter aft fuselage, a truss arrangement that simulated the orbiter's midfuselage and the Shuttle main propulsion system (three Space Shuttle main engines and the external tank). This test structure is at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. A series of static firings was conducted from 1978 through 1981 in support of the first flight into space.

On Jan. 29, 1979, NASA contracted with Rockwell to manufacture two additional orbiters, OV-103 and OV-104 (Discovery and Atlantis), convert the structural test article to space flight configuration (Challenger) and modify Columbia from its development configuration to that required for operational flights.

NASA named the first four orbiter spacecraft after famous exploration sailing ships. In the order they became operational, they are: Columbia (OV- 102), after a sailing frigate launched in 1836, one of the first Navy ships to circumnavigate the globe. Columbia also was the name of the Apollo 11 command module that carried Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edward (Buzz) Aldrin on the first lunar landing mission, July 20, 1969. Columbia was delivered to Rockwell's Palmdale assembly facility for modifications on Jan. 30, 1984, and was returned to KSC on July 14, 1985, for return to flight. Challenger (OV-099), also a Navy ship, which from 1872 to 1876 made a prolonged exploration of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It also was used in the Apollo program for the Apollo 17 lunar module. Challenger was delivered to DSC on July 5, 1982. Discovery (OV-103), after two ships, the vessel in which Henry Hudson in 1610-11 attempted to search for a northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and instead discovered Hudson Bay and the ship in which Capt. Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands and explored southern Alaska and western Canada. Discovery was delivered to KSC on Nov. 9, 1983. Atlantis (OV-104), after a two-masted ketch operated for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute from 1930 to 1966, which traveled more than half a million miles in ocean research Atlantis was delivered to KSC on April 3, 1985.

In April 1983, under contract to NASA, Rockwell's Space Transportation Systems Division, Downey, Calif., began the construction of structural spares for completion in 1987. The structural spares program consisted of an aft fuselage, crew compartment, forward reaction control system, lower and upper forward fuselage, mid-fuselage, wings (elevons), payload bay doors, vertical stabilizer (rudder/speed brake), [8] body flap and one set of orbital maneuvering system/reaction control system pods.

On Sept. 12, 1985, Rockwell International's Shuttle Operations Co., Houston, Texas, was awarded the Space Transportation System operation contract at NASA's Johnson Space Center, consolidating work previously performed under 22 contracts by 16 different contractors.

On July 31, 1987, NASA awarded Rockwell's Space Transportation Systems Division, Downey, Calif., a contract to build a replacement Space Shuttle orbiter using the structural spares. The replacement orbiter will be assembled at Rockwell's Palmdale, Calif., assembly facility and is scheduled for completion in 1991. This orbiter is designated OV-105.