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How the Shuttle Works
Stephen J. Garber

The launch of STS-1 demonstrated that a complex set of technologies could work together to lift humans into space and bring them back to Earth safely. The Shuttle (officially called the Space Transportation System, or STS) is composed of a reusable, delta-winged orbiter as well as an expendable External (fuel) Tank and two Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs). When the Shuttle lifts off at KSC, the three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) in the orbiter ignite along with the SRBs. After approximately two minutes, the SRBs automatically drop off and fall into the ocean; they are then retrieved by boat and refurbished for future launches. Shortly before the Shuttle enters Earth orbit, the External Tank drops off and burns up in the atmosphere. Shuttle missions range from a few days to approximately two weeks. Once the Shuttle mission is complete, the orbiter reenters the atmosphere and glides unpowered to a landing at either KSC or the Dryden Flight Research Center. If weather or other concerns dictate a landing at the latter site, the orbiter is then attached to the top of a large carrier aircraft that flies the Shuttle orbiter back to KSC for processing and preparation for future flights.

The Shuttle fleet consists of four orbiters: Atlantis, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour; the orbiter Challenger was lost in a accident that took the lives of its seven crew members on 28 January 1986. There have been over 100 successful Shuttle launches since the first launch in 1981.


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Updated April 5, 2001
Steven J. Dick, NASA Chief Historian
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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