How Space Shuttles Work

The Space Shuttle in Orbit

Cut-away drawing of the orbiter's crew compartment


Once in space, the shuttle orbiter is your home for seven to 14 days. The orbiter can be oriented so that the cargo bay doors face toward the Earth or away from the Earth depending upon the mission objectives; in fact, the orientation can be changed throughout the mission. One of the first things that the commander will do is to open the cargo bay doors to cool the orbiter.

The orbiter consists of the following parts:


  • crew compartment - where you will live and work
  • forward fuselage (upper, lower parts) - contains support equipment (fuel cells, gas tanks) for crew compartment
  • forward reaction control system (RCS) module - contains forward rocket jets for turning the orbiter in various directions
  • movable airlock - used for spacewalks and can be placed inside the crew compartment or inside the cargo bay
  • mid-fuselage: contains essential parts (gas tanks, wiring, etc.) to connect the crew compartment with the aft engines; forms the floor of the cargo bay
  • cargo bay doors - roof of the cargo bay and essential for cooling the orbiter
  • remote manipulator arm - located in the cargo bay: moves large pieces of equipment in and out of the cargo bay; platform for spacewalking astronauts
  • aft fuselage - contains the main engines
  • OMS/RCS pods (2) - contain the orbital maneuvering engines and the aft RCS module; turn the orbiter and change orbits
  • airplane parts of the orbiter - fly the shuttle upon landing (wings, tail, body flap)

You will live in the crew compartment, which is located in the forward fuselage. The crew compartment has 2,325 cu.ft of space with the airlock inside or 2,625 cu.ft with the airlock outside.

The crew compartment has three decks:

flight deck - uppermost deck

  • forward deck - contains all of the controls and warning systems for the space shuttle (also known as the cockpit)
  • seats - commander, pilot, specialist seats (two)
  • aft deck - contains controls for orbital operations: maneuvering the orbiter while in orbit (rendezvous, docking, deploying payload, and working the remote manipulator arm


  • living quarters (galley, sleeping bunks, toilet)
  • stowage compartments (personal gear, mission-essential equipment, experiments)
  • exercise equipment
  • airlock - on some flights
  • entry hatch

lower deck (equipment bay) - contains life support equipment, electrical systems, etc. Now that you have seen the parts of the orbiter, let's look closely at how the orbiter lets you live in space.

Living Environment

The shuttle orbiter provides an environment where you can live and work in space.

Space shuttle Endeavour (STS113) in orbit as seen from the International Space Station.
Photo courtesy NASA

It must be able to do the following:

  • provide life support - everything the Earth does for us (atmosphere control, supply and recycling;water; temperature control; light; food supply; waste removal; fire protection)
  • change position and change orbits
  • let you talk with ground-based flight controllers (communications and tracking)
  • find its way around (navigation)
  • make electrical power
  • coordinate and handle information (computers)
  • enable you to do useful work (launch/retrieve satellites; construction - such as building the International Space Station; conduct experiments)

Now let's look at the orbiter's systems and how it achieves these functions.