formally Space Transportation System (STS)
U.S. space shuttle orbiter.
Partially reusable rocket-launched vehicle developed by NASA
to go into Earth orbit, transport people and cargo between Earth and orbiting spacecraft, and glide to a runway landing on Earth. The first flight of a space shuttle into orbit took place in 1981. The shuttle consists of a winged orbiter that carries crew and cargo; an expendable external tank of liquid fuel and oxidizer for the orbiter's three main rocket engines; and two large, reusable solid-propellant booster rockets. The orbiter lifts off vertically like an expendable launch vehicle
but makes an unpowered descent similar to a glider. Each orbiter was designed to be reused up to 100 times. For manipulating cargo and other materials outside the orbiter, astronauts use a remotely controlled robot arm or exit the orbiter wearing spacesuits. On some missions, the shuttle carries a European-built pressurized research facility called Spacelab in its cargo bay. Between 1981 and 1985, four shuttle orbiters were put into service: Columbia
(the first in orbit), Challenger
, and Atlantis
exploded in 1986 during launch, killing all seven astronauts aboard; it was replaced in 1992 by Endeavour
. From 1995 to 1998, NASA conducted shuttle missions to the Russian space station Mir
to prepare for the construction of the International Space Station
(ISS). Beginning in 1998, the shuttle was used extensively to ferry components, supplies, and crews to the ISS. In 2003 Columbia
disintegrated while returning from a space mission, claiming the lives of its seven-person crew.
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Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.