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Noded as part of the Spacecraft Information Database Project -- Created 11/5/00

The Space Transportation System (USA)


Alternate Designations: STS, Space Shuttle
Major Contractors: Rockwell International (Orbiter), Morton-Thiokol (SRBs), Martin-Marietta (External Fuel Tank)
Nation of Origin: USA
Used By: USA; sometimes carries payloads for other nations
Number in Use: 3
Launch Sites: Kennedy Space Center, Vandenberg AFB
Project Status: Ongoing


Length (overall): 184.2 feet
Length (orbiter only): 122.17 feet
Height (overall): 76.6 feet
Height (orbiter only): 56.67 feet
Wingspan: 78.06 feet
Gross lift-off weight: 4.5 million pounds
Nominal end-of-mission weight: 230,000 pounds
Thrust (Solid Rocket Boosters): 3,300,000 pounds of thrust each in vacuum
Thrust (Orbiter Main Engines): 393,800 pounds of thrust each at sea level at 104 percent


Crew: 3 to 8, depending on mission requirements
Mission Duration: 1-10 days
Orbital Range: 100-217 nautical miles
Maximum Acceleration: 3 Earth gravities
Cargo Bay Length: 60 feet
Cargo Bay Width: 15 feet


The Space Transportation System (STS) is a semi-reusable surface-to-orbit spacecraft. It is composed of a reusable spaceplane or "orbiter", two reusable solid-fuel rocket boosters, and one large external fuel tank. It is used to deliver payloads into orbit which require human assistance in their deployment. Other uses include acting as a base for repair of ailing satellites and space stations, a versatile experiment and observation platform, and a crew delivery system.

Funded and used solely by the government of the United States of America, the STS project was approved in 1972 by President Richard Nixon. Aerospace and avionics company Rockwell International was awarded the contract for construction of the orbiter portion of the STS on August 9 of that year. Construction of the first fully operational STS (OV-102 Columbia) was completed in 1980. The first orbital flight of the STS took place on April 12, 1981. The Space Transportation System has since flown over 100 missions.

While plagued by problems such as high cost-per-launch, limited "reusability" (the external fuel tank is not reusable, and is dropped by the STS shortly before it reaches orbit) and use of now-outdated technology, the Space Transportation System has thus far been one of the most successful and well-known launch systems yet created. Two STS systems have been lost while in service. The first was lost during the mission designated STS-51L, due to a fuel leak through an O-ring seal in one of the spacecraft's Solid Rocket Boosters resulting in the destruction of OV-099 Challenger and the loss of her crew. The second incident occurred during reentry at the end of STS-107 on February 1, 2003, resulting in the destruction of OV-102 Columbia and the deaths of all aboard her. The incident is believed to have been caused by damage to the orbiter's heat shield during launch.

That being said, the future of the STS is quite open to debate. The STS uses technology that is now, in the early 2000s, thirty years out of date. Several projects -- most notably the X-33, X-34 and X-37 -- are testbed programs which have the eventual aim of developing into the new reusable launch system for the United States. These projects will not come into fruition for many years, however, and we can expect to see the STS remain as the sole workhorse of American manned spaceflight for several years to come.

Credits and Further Reading

Much of the hard data on this page can be found at the NASA Human Spaceflight Website ( The Human Spaceflight website also contains detailed data on previous and upcoming STS missions.

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The space shuttle is perhaps man's most technologically advanced transportation system - and yet it's basic design was dictated by a horse's ass. Say what? Well, it goes like this:

The basic components of the shuttle include the solid rocket boosters. These are built in Utah and shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The trains have to travel through a tunnel in a mountain; the width of the tunnel limited the size of the boosters.

The tunnels were built to accomodate the standard railway track gauge -- which is 4 feet 8 and one-half inches between rails. This seemingly arbitrary width was set by early American railroad engineers, many of whom were English -- and that was the standard gauge used in England.

The English used this as the standard railway width to take advantage of the tramways that existed in England before the trains -- and that's the width the trams used.

The tramway builders used this width to utilize the tools and fixtures already extant for building horse-drawn wagons and carriages -- and 4 feet 8 and one-half inches was the standard distance between wagon wheels.

The wagon builders used this width because it was the optimum width for the many rutted roads found throughout England. When they tried to use other sizes they found the wheels broke more often.

Many of these roads dated back to the the days of the Roman Legions. Initially built by Imperial Rome, they had been in use ever since.

The ruts on the roads were first caused by Roman war chariots. The standard Roman war chariot had a wheel base of 4 feet 8 and one-half inches.

The Romans used this width so their chariots could accomodate two warhorses.

In effect, two horse's asses determined the size of the rocket booster on the most advanced transportation system we've ever seen.

So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's ass came up with it, you may be exactly right -- it really was determined by a horse's ass.

NOTE: This has been around for several years in various forms. I couldn't find the earliest version that I recall seeing, nor can I give accurate attribution.

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