Find out about NASA's workhorse spacecraft, the space shuttle in this spacekids guide.

Space shuttle on launch pad.

Rocket or aeroplane?

The Space Shuttle was designed as a replacement for the huge and expensive Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo moon landing missions.

The Shuttle was designed to be cheaper to operate by being reusable. It launched vertically, like a rocket, but landed just like an aeroplane, gliding down to a runway, and landing on retractable wheeled undercarriage.

There were five spaceworthy shuttles, the first launched on 12th April 1981. NASA's Shuttles flew 135 missions - the last Shuttle Discovery was retired in 2011. Since then, Russian Soyuz spacecraft have been the only vehicles capable of carrying people into space. NASA plans to replace the Shuttle with the Orion spacecraft, similar to the Saturn V, though it won't be ready to carry people until around 2022.

Shuttle landing - drogue parachute deployed

Explore the Space Shuttle

Hover your mouse over the picture of the shuttle below to explore this great space craft.

Shuttle on the crawler

Moving the Shuttle

The Shuttle was prepared for launch in NASA's enormous Vertical assembly building. It was lifted onto a huge transporter (left), that moved at just 1 mph to the launch pad - named Complex 39.

When a shuttle completed its mission in space, it landed at one of the special landing sites NASA prepared for the shuttle. NASA preferred the shuttle to land at its own site, but if it needed to land somewhere else, NASA used two specially strengthened Boeing 747 Jumbo Jets that can carry the Shuttle back to base after landing.

On one of the 747's NASA added a warning sign on the top that read "Attach Orbiter Here, Black Side Down"!

Piggyback on a Boeing 747
Shuttle in space

At work in space

Space Shuttle crews conducted numerous experiments in space, carried many satellites to orbit, and in 1990 launched the Hubble Space Telescope. It flew missions to maintain and repair the Hubble telescope.

Many of the more recent flights were to the International Space Station. The Shuttle carried many sections and parts of the ISS into space, and brought components, tools, supplies and crews to replenish the space station.

On several missions crews used the Shuttle's robotic arm (called Canadarm) as a crane during construction and maintenance jobs. It was called Canadarm because it was developed in Canada.

Working on the Hubble space telescope
The glass cockpit

Commanders, Pilots and Mission Specialists

A Shuttle crew was usually made up of a commander and a pilot, who flew the shuttle, and two to five mission specialists.

The Shuttle had a "glass cockpit", similar to a modern airliner, full of computer screens. Shuttle pilots were highly trained in flying this complex craft, but also needed to participate in the work of the mission once up in space.

The mission specialists on the crew were trained to carry out specialised tasks - spacewalking, ISS construction, technical experiments, or maybe monitoring the crew's health.

Shuttle crew

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