Space Programs

The Space Shuttle

How was the space shuttle configured and operated?

The space shuttle system consisted of a main liquid fuel tank, two solid rocket boosters (SRBs), and the shuttle orbiter. When the shuttle was launched, the orbiter and SRBs were attached to the main fuel tank, and the tank fueled the orbiter’s three main engines. A few minutes after launch, the SRBs would exhaust their fuel, detach from the main tank, and fall into the ocean; a parachute system slowed their fall, and they were recovered for use in future launches. The main tank and orbiter stayed together until low Earth orbit was achieved. When the main tank was empty, it detached as well; it could not be recovered, and generally burned up in the atmosphere. The orbiter, with astronauts aboard, then went on to complete the mission. The 184-foot (56-meter) long vessels contained engines, rocket boosters, living and work quarters for up to eight crew members, and a cargo bay big enough to hold a large school bus. It also had wings, and was aerodynamically designed to be able to glide back to Earth from orbit, landing like an airplane on any runway long enough to accommodate a commercial jumbo jet.


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