If you’re fascinated by space exploration, you’ll love learning more space shuttle facts about NASA’s space shuttle program.
For 30 years, these iconic winged spacecraft carried astronauts into low Earth orbit on missions that expanded our knowledge of the universe.
Read on to discover 15 fascinating facts about the space shuttles!
1. The Space Shuttle Could Orbit Earth in 90 Minutes
One amazing capability of the space shuttles was their speed. At around 17,500 mph in low Earth orbit, they could circle the entire planet once every 90 minutes. This allowed astronauts to see up to 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours during their missions!
2. Nasa’s Space Shuttle Program Flew 135 Missions From 1981 to 2011
For three decades, NASA’s space shuttle program conducted revolutionary missions in Earth’s orbit. Columbia began the journey with its launch in 1981, and Atlantis concluded it with its final flight in 2011, accomplishing 135 incredible flights in the program. Just imagine all the scientific discoveries, construction projects, and astronaut adventures that occurred during those 30 years of space shuttle missions!
3. The Space Shuttle Traveled at 17,500 Miles per Hour in Orbit
Undoubtedly, the space shuttle astonished many with its immense speed as it orbited Earth. Traveling at 17,500 mph or approximately 5 miles per second, it could journey from New York to Los Angeles in under 3 minutes. Consequently, this extreme velocity enabled astronauts to circle the globe every 90 minutes while they were in low Earth orbit aboard the shuttle.
4. The Space Shuttle Was the World’s First Reusable Spacecraft
The space shuttle program introduced a game-changing innovation with the reusable design of the orbiters. Unlike previous spacecraft, which were single-use, engineers could refurbish and relaunch the space shuttles after each mission. Consequently, this reusability enabled NASA to complete many more flights and experiments than disposable rockets would have allowed.
5. The Space Shuttle Launched Vertically Like a Rocket
Contrary to traditional horizontal takeoff airplanes, the space shuttle launched vertically into the sky. The orbiter is connected to a large external propellant tank and two solid rocket boosters. Upon liftoff, the combined thrust propelled the shuttle upwards on a pillar of fire, until it reached 28 miles high and the boosters separated. Subsequently, the engines continued to push the orbiter into orbit, eventually reaching speeds over 17,000 mph.
6. The Space Shuttle Program Ended In 2011 After 30 Years of Service
After completing 135 missions, NASA retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011. The program successfully launched over 350 astronauts into space and played a pivotal role in building the International Space Station. Although the shuttle accomplished many achievements over its 30-year lifespan, NASA decided to explore new spacecraft designs. Consequently, this decision marked the end of an iconic era in human spaceflight. Nevertheless, the shuttle’s legacy continues to live on through ongoing microgravity research and as inspiration for future generations.
7. Space Shuttles Could Carry Large Payloads Into Orbit
The space shuttle’s payload bay, designed to carry satellites, space station components, and other cargo into space, boasted a large open area. Measuring 60 feet long and 15 feet wide, it held the record as the largest bay ever flown on a spacecraft. The bay doors opened like a clamshell, revealing the contents inside.
Over the years, shuttles have delivered some of NASA’s most important assets into orbit, including the Hubble Space Telescope and parts of the International Space Station. Critically, the ability to haul oversized payloads was essential for constructing the space station, which necessitated hundreds of deliveries over multiple missions. Without the shuttle’s spacious cargo hold, the orbiting outpost, where research is conducted 250 miles above Earth today, might not exist.
8. Many Scientific Experiments Were Conducted Aboard the Space Shuttles
The space shuttles offered unique opportunities for scientific research, thanks to the onboard microgravity environment. Over the years, they hosted hundreds of experiments in various disciplines, such as astronomy, materials science, medicine, and more. Astronauts conducted work on everything from studying crystal growth to measuring the effects of zero gravity on the human body.
Many experiments necessitated that the crew operate equipment and record data during the mission. The mid-deck lockers supplied storage and power for self-contained payloads. Consequently, with ample crew time and room for bulky gear, the shuttles facilitated research that paved the way for new innovations and breakthroughs not possible on Earth.
9. The Space Shuttle Was Made up of an Orbiter, External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters
The space shuttle system comprised three main components. Most iconic among them was the winged orbiter, which housed the crew compartment and payload bay. The external tank, providing liquid propellant for the orbiter’s engines, was the only non-reusable part and would detach before reaching orbit. Flanking the system, two solid rocket boosters provided most of the thrust at liftoff. After burnout, the boosters parachuted into the ocean for retrieval.
Once in space, the orbiter utilized its onboard engines to maneuver. Consequently, this innovative design allowed the shuttle to be partially reusable, thereby reducing costs. Furthermore, the ability to launch large cargo and return to Earth rendered the space shuttle unique among spacecraft, both before and after its 30 years of service.
10. The First Space Shuttle Flight Was in April 1981 Aboard Columbia
The space shuttle program embarked on its maiden voyage on April 12, 1981. The orbiter Columbia carried a crew of two astronauts into orbit, successfully completing a two-day test flight. For the first time, a spacecraft launched like a rocket but landed like an airplane. Consequently, the launch drew massive crowds at Cape Canaveral, all eager to witness the new era of reusable spacecraft.
Although the overall design proved sound, the program never quite realized the ambitious goals of low-cost, frequent flights. Additionally, budget cuts following the Challenger disaster also hampered the program. Nevertheless, over its 30 years of service, the space shuttle accomplished many firsts. It deployed satellites, hosted Spacelab science missions, assisted in building the International Space Station, and inspired a generation to reach for the stars.
11. Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour Were the Other Space Shuttles
After the success of Columbia’s maiden flight, NASA built four more space shuttles. Challenger joined the fleet in 1983, quickly followed by Discovery and Atlantis in 1984. Endeavour was constructed later as a replacement for Challenger after the tragic accident in 1986. Each orbiter had its own unique history and achievements.
Discovery deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. Atlantis docked with the Russian Mir space station. Endeavor was the baby of the fleet, built from replacement parts, yet still accomplished important missions. The space shuttle program demonstrated the possibilities of reusable spacecraft. While it fell short of ambitions, the iconic winged orbiters inspired generations and paved the way for future exploration.
12. The Orbiter Had a Cargo Bay, Robotic Arm, and Living Quarters
The space shuttle orbiter was an engineering marvel. At the heart of the vehicle was the 18-meter payload bay, large enough to fit a school bus inside! The robotic Canadarm could grapple and maneuver large satellites and components during missions. Above the bay was the crew cabin, holding up to 8 astronauts on extended stays.
While spartan, it provided limited living amenities like sleeping bags, storage lockers, and a toilet. The complex vehicle performed flawlessly for over 30 years of service. Despite the two losses, the design proved sound overall. The space shuttle expanded our capabilities substantially over earlier capsules. It enabled the construction of the International Space Station and the deployment of spacecraft like the Hubble. The orbiter was a versatile spaceship and workhorse of the shuttle program.
13. The External Tank Contained Liquid Hydrogen and Oxygen Fuel
The iconic orange external tank was the single-use fuel tank for the orbiter’s three main engines. At 153 feet long and 27 feet wide, it was the “gas tank” of the shuttle system. The tank used a lightweight aluminum-lithium alloy to hold over 1.6 million pounds of propellant. The top third stored liquid oxygen at -297°F. The bottom two-thirds held liquid hydrogen at -423°F. Several hours before launch, the cryogenic fuels were loaded into the tank.
During ascent, pumps sent the liquids into the orbiter through 17-inch diameter lines. The tank jettisoned 8.5 minutes after liftoff and burned up on reentry. The external tank was the only major component not reused. Building and fueling new tanks constituted a substantial cost but were essential for each mission.
14. The Solid Rocket Boosters Provided Most of the Launch Thrust
At liftoff, the shuttle was propelled by two white solid rocket boosters. Each 149-foot tall booster provided 2.8 million pounds of thrust for the first 2 minutes of flight. They burned a mixture of aluminum powder and ammonium perchlorate. After burnout, the SRBs were jettisoned and descended by parachute into the Atlantic.
They were recovered, refurbished, and reused on future missions. This made them the only major reusable component besides the orbiter itself. The boosters were manufactured by Thiokol in Utah. New sets were stacked onto the mobile launcher platform between missions at Kennedy Space Center. The SRBs combined with the main engines to create 6.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff – the most powerful vehicle ever flown.
15. The Space Shuttles Completed Over 21,000 Orbits of Earth
During 135 missions from 1981 to 2011, the five space shuttle orbiters circled Earth a total of 21,152 times. The longest mission, STS-80 aboard Columbia, completed over 445 orbits and traveled 18 million miles in nearly 18 days. On average, shuttles orbit Earth every 90 minutes while in space. At an orbital velocity of 17,500 mph, they saw a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes.
Over the 30-year program, shuttles logged over 542 million miles – equivalent to going to the Sun and back over 1,400 times. While in orbit, shuttles helped build the International Space Station, launch interplanetary probes, conduct scientific research, and deploy commercial satellites.
How Fast Does the Space Shuttle Go On Take-Off?
The space shuttle can reach speeds over 100 mph in the first minute after liftoff. At launch, its three main engines and two solid rocket boosters produce up to 6.5 million pounds of thrust.
How Fast Does the Space Shuttle Go From 0 to 60?
The space shuttle can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 6 seconds after liftoff. The solid rocket boosters provide most of the thrust at launch.
What Is the Fastest Spacecraft Speed?
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe holds the record for the fastest spacecraft speed, reaching speeds over 213,200 mph (343,000 km/h) relative to the Sun in 2022. Helios 2 set the previous record in 1976 at 156,600 mph (252,000 km/h).
Does It Take 1 Hour to Get to Space?
No, it takes the space shuttle about 8.5 minutes to reach orbit, which is considered the edge of space at an altitude of around 100 km or 62 miles above Earth’s surface. The shuttle accelerates rapidly after launch to achieve an orbital velocity of about 17,500 mph.
The space shuttle was a reusable spacecraft system operated by NASA for human spaceflight missions. At launch, its three main engines and solid rocket boosters produced tremendous thrust to accelerate the shuttle to over 100 mph within the first minute. The shuttle could reach orbit in just 8.5 minutes, traveling at speeds over 17,000 mph.
While no longer in service, the space shuttle program demonstrated advanced technologies and capabilities that paved the way for continued human space exploration and research. These space shuttle facts highlight the immense power and speed required to break free of Earth’s gravity and reach the final frontier.