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Space Shuttle Requirements

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 SRBs. 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.

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 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.

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 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 burn 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.

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