Space Shuttles & the Space Station

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn about the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle and how they have given humans unprecedented access to space. Take a quiz and see what you know.

Living and Working in Space

It's hard to deny that astronauts are cool. Launching a gigantic rocket and sending humans where it seems like they shouldn't belong is exciting. Not only is it exciting, but there are many reasons we might want to do it. Exploring space gives us perspective on the universe and makes us realize how small we are compared to everything else out there. Exploring space helps us learn how to take care of the Earth and prepare for a day when we might be forced to leave to find a new home. Exploring space encourages us to develop new technologies and stimulates the economy, and it allows us to do experiments and explore some of the biggest questions about how the universe works.

Until relatively recently, getting to space was so challenging and the environment so unwelcoming that it seemed like a monumental task. But getting to and working in space has become much easier over the last 30 years, thanks mostly to two pieces of equipment: the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Space Shuttles

The Space Shuttle is like an airplane for space. It was a spacecraft suitable for a low-Earth orbit, meaning it had to stay a few hundred miles from the Earth's surface. The Space Shuttle was pretty big by everyday standards: more than 180 feet long, with a weight topping 400,000 pounds (not counting fuel). That's about the same as a 747, but then you have to add several million pounds of fuel to the equation!

The Space Shuttle has become iconic and known the world over, and it made access to space easier and cheaper. The first test flight of a Space Shuttle blasted off in 1981. Since then, they've flown 135 missions, until they were decommissioned in 2011 because of, well, money. Space Shuttles turned out to be more expensive to launch and maintain than expected, and NASA had a small budget. Basically, NASA had been in an exclusive relationship for 30 years, and really wanted to see other people, like maybe Mars, or Pluto, or an asteroid or two.

NASA built five fully functional shuttles during those 30 years: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Challenger and Columbia were both destroyed in unfortunate accidents. There was another shuttle called the Enterprise (named after the famous ship in Star Trek) that was built for test landings but was never intended to go into space.

The Space Shuttle stands more than 18 stories high.
The Space Shuttle

The key feature of the Space Shuttle was the multiple component design. The main part of the spacecraft was the plane-like orbiter vehicle, which held the crew, was reusable, and would fly back down to Earth once the mission was over. At launch, the Space Shuttle also includes two recoverable solid rocket boosters and a large red-colored external tank containing fuel which can only be used once.

The Space Shuttle might be bigger than a 747, but the orbiter is much smaller. In fact, the orbiter has been transported by a plane on several occasions. This happened most famously when the Space Shuttles were retired and purchased by museums. They had to get from NASA to those museums somehow!

The orbiter, the main part of the Space Shuttle, can be transported by plane.
The Space Shuttle Being Transported

The partially reusable nature of the Space Shuttle gave us unprecedented access to space--it was used to launch satellites, probes, and the Hubble Space Telescope; to complete zero-gravity science experiments; and to carry astronauts and supplies to and from the International Space Station.

The International Space Station

The International Space Station could be called one of humankind's greatest achievements. Built in 1998, it is a habitable satellite in low-Earth orbit, and astronauts have been there nonstop since November 2000, which is the longest recorded human occupation of anywhere in space. We use the International Space Station to do experiments in physics, astronomy, biology, and meteorology, among others. And there's a reason it's called the 'International' Space Station: people from 15 countries have spent time there. Astronauts speak mostly English, but they also learn Russian because there are a lot of Russian astronauts. There's even an American section and a Russian section to the International Space Station, because both countries have astronauts there nonstop.

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