NASA's Space Shuttle, officially called the Space Transportation System (STS), is the United States' current manned launch vehicle and is scheduled to be retired from service in 2010. The winged Space Shuttle orbiter is launched vertically, usually carrying five to seven astronauts (although eight have been carried) and up to 50,000 lb (22 700 kg) of payload into low earth orbit. When its mission is complete, the shuttle can independently move itself out of orbit (by means of making a 180-degree turn and firing its main engines, thus slowing it down) and re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. During descent and landing, the orbiter acts as a glider and makes a completely unpowered landing. You can think of it as a somewhat controlled brick.
The shuttle is the only winged manned spacecraft to achieve orbit and land, and the only reusable space vehicle that has ever made multiple flights into orbit. Its missions involve carrying large payloads to various orbits (including segments to be added to the International Space Station), providing crew rotation for the International Space Station, and performing service missions (such as to the Hubble Space Telescope and to ailing Communication Satellites. The orbiter can also recover satellites and other payloads from orbit and return them to Earth, but its use in this capacity is rare. However, the shuttle has previously been used to return large payloads from the ISS to Earth, as the Russian Soyuz spacecraft has limited capacity for return payloads. Each vehicle was designed with a projected lifespan of 100 launches, or 10 years' operational life.
For reference, most commercial aircraft are retired after 10-20 years of service (depending upon the number of take-offs and landings, maintenance, abilities of countries/companies to maintain their fleet, etc). The shuttles have been operational since 1981.
The program started in the late 1960s and has dominated NASA's manned operations since the mid-1970s. According to the Vision for Space Exploration, use of the space shuttle will be focused on completing assembly of the ISS by 2010, after which it will be retired from service, and eventually replaced by the new Orion spacecraft (now expected to be ready in about 2014).
As of writing, there have been about 125 missions of 5 Space Shuttles.
Two of the Shuttles were destroyed, killing their crews. The Challenger exploded shortly after take-off on January 28, 1986 and the Columbia broke apart of re-entry on February 1, 2003. This is too sad for comment.
The Shuttle is the most complex space vehicle -- in fact any vehicle ever designed.
The Shuttle program is run by NASA, however all components of the Shuttle are built by private companies, together called the "United Space Alliance". The companies are:
Thiokol/Alliant Techsystems (Solid Rocket Boosters -- SRBs)
Lockheed Martin (Martin Marietta) - (External Tank --ET)
Rockwell/Boeing (The Orbiter -- Shuttle)
SPAR Aerospace (Robotic Arm - Canada)
Here are a series of photographs documenting how a Space Shuttle is prepared for launch, images from space, and descent and landing:
THE EXTERNAL TANK IS SHIPPED BY BARGE
ARRIVING AT PORT CANAVERAL
UNLOADING THE ET
READY TO GO TO THE VEHICLE ASSEMBLY BUILDING
THE VEHICLE ASSEMBLY BUILDING (VAB) AT THE CAPE.
THE VAB IS ONE OF THE LARGEST BUILDINGS -- ON THE LEFT IS A PAYLOAD BAY. THIS FITS INSIDE THE SHUTTLE BAY.
INSIDE THE VEHICLE ASSEMBLY BUILDING
ATTACHING THE TWO SOLID ROCKET BOOSTERS (UNMANNED SPACECRAFT CAN HOLD AS MANY AS NINE SRBS).
ATTACHING AN ENGINE TO A SHUTTLE. EACH SHUTTLE HAS THREE OF THESE.
THE SHUTTLE IS BEING READED TO BE LIFTED INTO POSITION
LIFTING THE SHUTTLE ABOVE THE EXTERNAL TANKS AND SRBS.
LOWERING THE SHUTTLE INTO POSITION.
FILING A CARGO BAY WITH COMPONENTS FOR THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION
RAISING THE CARGO BAY AT THE LAUNCH TOWER. IT WILL BE PLACED IN THE SHUTTLE WHEN THE LATTER IS DRIVEN FROM THE VEHICLE ASSEMBLY BUILDING, ABOUT 6 MILES AWAY
GETTING READY TO DRIVE THE SHUTTLE FROM THE VAB TO THE LAUNCH PAD
THE LAUNCH PAD IS ABOUT 6 MILES FROM THE VAB. IT TAKES 6-8 HOURS TO GET FROM THE VAB TO THE PAD
CLOSING THE CARGO BAY
ON THE ROAD
THE LONG DRIVE TO THE LAUNCH PAD
ARRIVAL AT THE LAUNCH PAD
READY FOR LAUNCH
IF YOU CLICK THE PICTURE ABOVE, YOU'LL SEE A SHORT MOVIE OF THIS WHOLE PROCEDURE.
For the past few years, each time there is a Space Shuttle launch, a group of wing-suit jumpers fly with it as a salute. Here is one such ride!!!
Again, click on the image below to see the flight. Enjoy!
APPROACHING THE SPACE STATION
ASTRONAUT (MISSION SPECIALIST) JOHN PHILLIPS
ON DESCENT (This is a special shot from STS02. The payload bay doors are supposed to be closed by now. But they did close and land safely).
LANDING (CLICK ON THE IMAGE)
A COCKPIT VIEW OF A LANDING (CLICK ON THE IMAGE)