A reusable crewed spacecraft developed by NASA to reduce the cost of using space for commercial, scientific, and military purposes. The orbiter, the part that goes into space, is 37.2 m long and weighs 68 tonnes. The first shuttle, Columbia, was launched on 12 April 1981. At the end of each mission, the space shuttle can be flown back to Earth to land on a special runway 4.5 km long and 91 m wide, and is then available for reuse.
Four space shuttles were built initially: Columbia, Challenger, first launched on 4 April 1983, Discovery on 30 August 1984, and Atlantis on 3 October 1985. The rocket boosters were redesigned after Challenger was destroyed in a mid-air explosion in 1986, killing its seven astronauts. Flights resumed in September 1988. A replacement orbiter, Endeavour, was built, making its first flight in May 1992. The break-up of Columbia on re-entry on 1 February 2003 killed all seven astronauts aboard. NASA then halted all flights and established the Columbia Accident Investigation Board which recommended 15 safety changes. The first renewed launch of a shuttle, Discovery, took place on 26 July 2005. When the flights were halted, there had been 113 shuttle flights.
The USSR produced Buran, a shuttle of similar size and appearance to the US one. It was launched on its first and only flight, without a crew, by the Energiya rocket on 15 November 1988. In June 2001, it was announced that Buran was being prepared for relaunch to transport space tourists.
Although most of the shuttle's cargoes are uncrewed, two to eight crew members occupy the orbiter's nose section, and missions last up to 18 days, although 30-day missions may be possible with the addition of more fuel cells to provide power. In its cargo bay, the orbiter can carry up to 29 tonnes of satellites, scientific equipment, Spacelab, or military payloads. At launch, the shuttle's three main engines are fed with liquid fuel from a cylindrical tank attached to the orbiter; this tank is discarded shortly before the shuttle reaches orbit. Two additional solid-fuel boosters provide the main thrust for launch, but are jettisoned after two minutes.
The aftermath of the Columbia disaster was an increased focus on astronaut safety and a decrease in the number of missions that space shuttles would have to fly. One high-profile programme that was abandoned on safety grounds was the proposed 2006 mission to upgrade and carry out maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope.
http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/index.html Official NASA site for all shuttle missions. There is extensive technical and non-technical information, both textual and graphic. Questions can be sent to shuttle crew members during missions. There is an extensive list of Frequently Asked Questions. There are helpful links to related sites and even a plain-English explanation of NASA's bewildering jargon and acronyms.
http://southport.jpl.nasa.gov/pic.html Small but spectacular collection of radar images taken from the space shuttle Endeavour in 1994 and offered by NASA. The collection also includes 3D images, videos, and animations. The high-technology enthusiast will also find ample details on the imaging radar system used for the project.
Subjects: Astronomy and Astrophysics.