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Mission Profile

In the launch configuration, the orbiter and two SRBs are attached to the external tank in a vertical (nose-up) position on the launch pad. Each SRB is attached at its aft skirt to the mobile launcher platform by four bolts.

Emergency exit for the flight crew on the launch pad up to 30 seconds before liftoff is by slidewire. There are seven 1,200-foot-long slidewires, each with one basket. Each basket is designed to carry three persons. The baskets, 5 feet in diameter and 42 inches deep, are suspended beneath the slide mechanism by four cables. The slidewires carry the baskets to ground level. Upon departing the basket at ground level, the flight crew progresses to a bunker that is designed to protect it from an explosion on the launch pad.

At launch, the three Space Shuttle main engines - fed liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid oxygen oxidizer from the external tank - are ignited first. When it has been verified that the engines are operating at the proper thrust level, a signal is sent to ignite the SRB. At the proper thrust-to-weight ratio, initiators (small explosives) at eight hold-down bolts on the SRB are fired to release the Space Shuttle for liftoff. All this takes only a few seconds.

Maximum dynamic pressure is reached early in the ascent, nominally approximately 60 seconds after liftoff. Approximately 1 minute later (2 minutes into the ascent phase), the two SRB have consumed their propellant and are jettisoned from the external tank. This is triggered by a separation signal from the orbiter.

The boosters briefly continue to ascend, while small motors fire to carry them away from the Space Shuttle. The boosters then turn and descend, and at a predetermined altitude, parachutes are deployed to decelerate them for a safe splashdown in the ocean. Splashdown occurs approximately 141 nautical miles (162 statute miles) from the launch site. The boosters are recovered and reused.

Meanwhile, the orbiter and external tank continue to ascend, using the thrust of the three Space Shuttle main engines. Approximately 8 minutes after launch and just short of orbital velocity, the three Space Shuttle engines are shut down (main engine cutoff), and the external tank is jettisoned on command from the orbiter.

The forward and aft reaction control system engines provide attitude (pitch, yaw and roll) and the translation of the orbiter away from the external tank at separation and return to attitude hold prior to the orbital maneuvering system thrusting maneuver.

The external tank continues on a ballistic trajectory and enters the atmosphere, where it disintegrates. Its projected impact is in the Indian Ocean (except for 57-degree inclinations) in the case of equatorial orbits KSC launch) and in the extreme southern Pacific Ocean in the case of a Vandenberg launch.

Normally, two thrusting maneuvers using the two OMS engines at the aft end of the orbiter are used in a two-step thrusting sequence: to complete insertion into Earth orbit and to circularize the spacecraft's orbit. The OMS engines are also used on orbit for any major velocity changes.

In the event of a direct-insertion mission, only one OMS thrusting sequence is used.

The orbital altitude of a mission is dependent upon that mission. The nominal altitude can vary between 100 to 217 nautical miles (115 to 250 statute miles).

The forward and aft RCS thrusters (engines) provide attitude control of the orbiter as well as any minor translation maneuvers along a given axis on orbit.

At the completion of orbital operations, the orbiter is oriented in a tail first attitude by the reaction control system. The two OMS engines are commanded to slow the orbiter for deorbit.

The reaction control system turns the orbiter's nose forward for entry. The reaction control system controls the orbiter until atmospheric density is sufficient for the pitch and roll aerodynamic control surfaces to become effective.

Entry interface is considered to occur at 400,000 feet altitude approximately 4,400 nautical miles (5,063 statute miles) from the landing site and at approximately 25,000 feet per second velocity.

At 400,000 feet altitude, the orbiter is maneuvered to zero degrees roll and yaw (wings level) and at a predetermined angle of attack for entry. The angle of attack is 40 degrees. The flight control system issues the commands to roll, pitch and yaw reaction control system jets for rate damping.

The forward RCS engines are inhibited prior to entry interface, and the aft reaction control system engines maneuver the spacecraft until a dynamic pressure of 10 pounds per square foot is sensed, which is when the orbiter's ailerons become effective. The aft RCS roll engines are then deactivated. At a dynamic pressure of 20 pounds per square foot, the orbiter's elevators become active, and the aft RCS pitch engines are deactivated. The orbiter's speed brake is used below Mach 10 to induce a more positive downward elevator trim deflection. At approximately Mach 3.5, the rudder becomes activated, and the aft reaction control system yaw engines are deactivated at 45,000 feet.

Entry guidance must dissipate the tremendous amount of energy the orbiter possesses when it enters the Earth's atmosphere to assure that the orbiter does not either burn up (entry angle too steep) or skip out of the atmosphere (entry angle too shallow) and that the orbiter is properly positioned to reach the desired touchdown point.

During entry, energy is dissipated by the atmospheric drag on the orbiter's surface. Higher atmospheric drag levels enable faster energy dissipation with a steeper trajectory. Normally, the angle of attack and roll angle enable the atmospheric drag of any flight vehicle to be controlled. However, for the orbiter, angle of attack was rejected because it creates surface temperatures above the design specification. The angle of attack scheduled during entry is loaded into the orbiter computers as a function of relative velocity, leaving roll angle for energy control. Increasing the roll angle decreases the vertical component of lift, causing a higher sink rate and energy dissipation rate. Increasing the roll rate does raise the surface temperature of the orbiter, but not nearly as drastically as an equal angle of attack command.

If the orbiter is low on energy (current range-to-go much greater than nominal at current velocity), entry guidance will command lower than nominal drag levels. If the orbiter has too much energy (current range-to-go much less than nominal at the current velocity), entry guidance will command higher-than-nominal drag levels to dissipate the extra energy.

Roll angle is used to control cross range. Azimuth error is the angle between the plane containing the orbiter's position vector and the heading alignment cylinder tangency point and the plane containing the orbiter's position vector and velocity vector. When the azimuth error exceeds a computer-loaded number, the orbiter's roll angle is reversed.

Thus, descent rate and down ranging are controlled by bank angle. The steeper the bank angle, the greater the descent rate and the greater the drag. Conversely, the minimum drag attitude is wings level. Cross range is controlled by bank reversals.

The entry thermal control phase is designed to keep the backface temperatures within the design limits. A constant heating rate is established until below 19,000 feet per second.

The equilibrium glide phase shifts the orbiter from the rapidly increasing drag levels of the temperature control phase to the constant drag level of the constant drag phase. The equilibrium glide flight is defined as flight in which the flight path angle, the angle between the local horizontal and the local velocity vector, remains constant. Equilibrium glide flight provides the maximum downrange capability. It lasts until the drag acceleration reaches 33 feet per second squared.

The constant drag phase begins at that point. The angle of attack is initially 40 degrees, but it begins to ramp down in this phase to approximately 36 degrees by the end of this phase.

In the transition phase, the angle of attack continues to ramp down, reaching the approximately 14-degree angle of attack at the entry Terminal Area Energy Management (TAEM) interface, at approximately 83,000 feet altitude, 2,500 feet per second, Mach 2.5 and 52 nautical miles (59 statute miles) from the landing runway. Control is then transferred to TAEM guidance.

During the entry phases described, the orbiter's roll commands keep the orbiter on the drag profile and control cross range.

TAEM guidance steers the orbiter to the nearest of two heading alignment cylinders, whose radii are approximately 18,000 feet and which are located tangent to and on either side of the runway centerline on the approach end. In TAEM guidance, excess energy is dissipated with an S-turn; and the speed brake can be used to modify drag, lift-to-drag ratio and flight path angle in high-energy conditions. This increases the ground track range as the orbiter turns away from the nearest Heading Alignment Circle (HAC) until sufficient energy is dissipated to allow a normal approach and landing guidance phase capture, which begins at 10,000 feet altitude. The orbiter also can be flown near the velocity for maximum lift over drag or wings level for the range stretch case. The spacecraft slows to subsonic velocity at approximately 49,000 feet altitude, about 22 nautical miles (25.3 statute miles) from the landing site.

At TAEM acquisition, the orbiter is turned until it is aimed at a point tangent to the nearest HAC and continues until it reaches way point 1. At WP-1, the TAEM heading alignment phase begins. The HAC is followed until landing runway alignment, plus or minus 20 degrees, has been achieved. In the TAEM pre-final phase, the orbiter leaves the HAC; pitches down to acquire the steep glide slope, increases airspeed; banks to acquire the runway centerline and continues until on the runway centerline, on the outer glide slope and on airspeed. The approach and landing guidance phase begins with the completion of the TAEM pre-final phase and ends when the spacecraft comes to a complete stop on the runway.

The approach and landing trajectory capture phase begins at the TAEM interface and continues to guidance lock-on to the steep outer glide slope. The approach and landing phase begins at about 10,000 feet altitude at an equivalent airspeed of 290, plus or minus 12, knots 6.9 nautical miles (7.9 statute miles) from touchdown. Autoland guidance is initiated at this point to guide the orbiter to the minus 19- to 17-degree glide slope (which is over seven times that of a commercial airliner's approach) aimed at a target 0.86 nautical mile (1 statute mile) in front of the runway. The spacecraft's speed brake is positioned to hold the proper velocity. The descent rate in the later portion of TAEM and approach and landing is greater than 10,000 feet per minute (a rate of descent approximately 20 times higher than a commercial airliner's standard 3-degree instrument approach angle).

At 1,750 feet above ground level, a pre-flare maneuver is started to position the spacecraft for a 1.5-degree glide slope in preparation for landing with the speed brake positioned as required. The flight crew deploys the landing gear at this point.

The final phase reduces the sink rate of the spacecraft to less than 9 feet per second. Touchdown occurs approximately 2,500 feet past the runway threshold at a speed of 184 to 196 knots (213 to 226 mph).

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002
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