How Space Shuttles Work

The Shuttle's Return to Earth
Weight of the space shuttle, empty vs. full
Weight of the space shuttle, empty vs. full
© 2012

For a successful return to Earth and landing, dozens of things have to go just right.

First, the orbiter must be maneuvered into the proper position. This is crucial to a safe landing.

When a mission is finished and the shuttle is halfway around the world from the landing site (Kennedy Space Center, Edwards Air Force Base), mission control gives the command to come home, which prompts the crew to:

  1. Close the cargo bay doors. In most cases, they have been flying nose-first and upside down, so they then fire the RCS thrusters to turn the orbiter tail first.
  2. Once the orbiter is tail first, the crew fires the OMS engines to slow the orbiter down and fall back to Earth; it will take about 25 minutes before the shuttle reaches the upper atmosphere.
  3. During that time, the crew fires the RCS thrusters to pitch the orbiter over so that the bottom of the orbiter faces the atmosphere (about 40 degrees) and they are moving nose first again.
  4. Finally, they burn leftover fuel from the forward RCS as a safety precaution because this area encounters the highest heat of re-entry.

Because it is moving at about 17,000 mph (28,000 km/h), the orbiter hits air molecules and builds up heat from friction (approximately 3000 degrees F, or 1650 degrees C). The orbiter is covered with ceramic insulating materials designed to protect it from this heat. The materials include:

  • Reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) on the wing surfaces and underside
  • High-temperature black surface insulation tiles on the upper forward fuselage and around the windows
  • White Nomex blankets on the upper payload bay doors, portions of the upper wing and mid/aft fuselage
  • Low-temperature white surface tiles on the remaining areas

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Maneuvering of the orbiter for re-entry

These materials are designed to absorb large quantities of heat without increasing their temperature very much. In other words, they have a high heat capacity. During re-entry, the aft steering jets help to keep the orbiter at its 40 degree attitude. The hot ionized gases of the atmosphere that surround the orbiter prevent radio communication with the ground for about 12 minutes (i.e., ionization blackout).

When re-entry is successful, the orbiter encounters the main air of the atmosphere and is able to fly like an airplane. The orbiter is designed from a lifting body design with swept back "delta" wings. With this design, the orbiter can generate lift with a small wing area. At this point, flight computers fly the orbiter. The orbiter makes a series of S-shaped, banking turns to slow its descent speed as it begins its final approach to the runway. The commander picks up a radio beacon from the runway (Tactical Air Navigation System) when the orbiter is about 140 miles (225 km) away from the landing site and 150,000 feet (45,700 m) high. At 25 miles (40 km) out, the shuttle's landing computers give up control to the commander. The commander flies the shuttle around an imaginary cylinder (18,000 feet or 5,500 m in diameter) to line the orbiter up with the runway and drop the altitude. During the final approach, the commander steepens the angle of descent to minus 20 degrees (almost seven times steeper than the descent of a commercial airliner).

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Shuttle flight path for landing


When the orbiter is 2,000 ft (610 m) above the ground, the commander pulls up the nose to slow the rate of descent. The pilot deploys the landing gear and the orbiter touches down. The commander brakes the orbiter and the speed brake on the vertical tail opens up. A parachute is deployed from the back to help stop the orbiter. The parachute and the speed brake on the tail increase the drag on the orbiter. The orbiter stops about midway to three-quarters of the way down the runway.

Space shuttle orbiter touching down
Photo courtesy NASA

After landing, the crew goes through the shutdown procedures to power down the spacecraft. This process takes about 20 minutes. During this time, the orbiter is cooling and noxious gases, which were made during the heat of re-entry, blow away. Once the orbiter is powered down, the crew exits the vehicle. Ground crews are on-hand to begin servicing the orbiter.

Parachute deployed to help stop the orbiter on landing
Photo courtesy NASA
Orbiter being serviced just after landing
Photo courtesy NASA

The shuttle's technology is constantly being updated. Next, we'll look at future improvements to the shuttle.

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