Top 5 Amazing Facts about Space Shuttles
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Top 5 Amazing Facts about Space Shuttles
The space shuttle is one of the most complex pieces of technology ever, perhaps second only to the International Space Station. A child of the cold war, when the technology competition between the mighty US and USSR was just as intense as the nuclear arms race, the shuttle had a glorious, and sometimes tragic, 30-year history. In this episode, you’ll learn 5 amazing facts about the space shuttles.
- Shuttles operated upside down. Take a look at these images of space shuttles operating in space. See anything unusual? The shuttle is upside down! In fact, shuttles operated upside down 99% of the time they were in space. Why? Heat rejection. In space, there’s no ozone layer protecting the vehicle, the astronauts, and the cargo from the heat and radiation of the sun. To prevent overheating and keep the crew safe and cool, shuttles turned so the heat-resistant tiles on the bottom were pointed at the sun. In addition, the cargo doors were often kept open to expel excess heat from the shuttle into space. But what about astronauts? Because there’s no gravity in space, Astronauts have no concept of sitting 'upside down' since there's simply no 'up' or ‘down’ in the standard sense. The Space Shuttle can turn any way it wants to, but for the astronauts there’s no difference.
- Shuttles flew backwards. The shuttles were not only upside down while in space, they also flew backwards, with the tail pointed in the direction of the orbital motion. Can you imagine driving your car backwards at 60 or 70 miles per hour? Well, the shuttles were speeding along at over 17 thousand miles per hour! Take a look at this illustration of a shuttle in orbit, with its tail pointed forward. There were several good reasons for this orientation. First, when the mission was over and the crew needed to go back to Earth, they would fire the shuttle’s engines and use the thrust against the motion of the Earth to decelerate before flipping over and starting the decent. The second reason was to protect the astronauts: Any space debris that the shuttle encountered while moving at such high speed would hit the tail of the shuttle, rather than the crew compartment in the front.
- Shuttles had only one chance to land. Although space shuttles look a lot like planes, they have an important difference: Shuttles used up all of their fuel during takeoff and space maneuvering. Therefore, when re-entering the atmosphere during descent, the shuttles could not use any engine power for maneuvering — basically they turned into gigantic multi-ton gliders. This made the landing extremely risky. While planes can abort a landing and go around for another try if something goes wrong, shuttles did not have that luxury — they had only a single chance to land. Therefore, landing training was quite intense for shuttle pilots.
- Shuttles used parachutes. As soon as a shuttle touched down on the runway, it deployed a massive parachute. While it might sound a little bizarre, there was a good reason for this design feature: In order to slow down such a large and fast-moving object, you need very BIG and very HEAVY brakes. But large, bulky brakes would weaken the construction of the shuttles, increasing the risk of disintegration during stress. Through a series of tests, engineers discovered that deploying a parachute during landing was the optimal way to help slow the shuttle while saving weight and maintaining the structural strength of the spacecraft.
- Shuttles were designed as cargo trucks. Obviously, during their 136 missions, shuttles served many purposes. While we like to think of shuttles as space airplanes where the crew is sipping coffee flying across the galaxy, in reality, the shuttles were primarily used as moving vans and repair ships — they spent most of their time deploying satellites, carrying the building blocks for the International Space Station, and servicing and repairing other spacecrafts. In fact, the renowned Hubble telescope, the all-seeing eye of humanity, was brought to space and deployed by the space shuttle Discovery in 1990.
It’s been almost a decade since the final shuttle space mission. All of the remaining shuttles have been grounded and moved to their final destinations — museums of aviation history all around the globe. Although the shuttle era is over for multiple reasons, which we’ll talk about in another video, we can’t help but hope that something as cool as the shuttle will be launched into space again one day.
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