US shuttle, the most complex flying machine ever built

July 20, 2011

The US space shuttle is the most complex and costly flying machine ever built. It helped build a pioneering space outpost but also kept Americans confined to low Earth orbit for 30 years.

As the shuttle program prepares to retire after Atlantis lands Thursday for a final time, here are some key facts about the iconic US spacecraft.


The three-decade , NASA's most enduring project in its 50 years of existence, cost a total of $208 billion (in 2010 dollars) compared to $151 billion spent on Apollo which put Americans on the moon in 1969.

In 2010, NASA said the cost to prepare and launch a single was approximately $775 million.


Officially known as the Space Transportation System (STS), the program was formally launched by president in 1972 to make spaceflight a possibility for common people, not just the educated elite.


The shuttle could fly at speeds of 17,500 miles (28,160 kilometers) per hour and was designed to maneuver in at 100 to 400 miles (160-640 kilometers) high.

Its largest crew size reached eight people (STS-61A and STS-71's return from the Russian space station Mir). Its smallest crews were two people on each of the first four test missions STS-1 through STS-4.


Columbia lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's in Florida on April 12, 1981.


Atlantis took off from the same launch pad on July 8, 2011 and returns on July 21, carrying a four-member US crew after a 13-day mission to the (ISS).


With about 2.5 million moving parts, the shuttle possessed a 60-foot-long (18-meter) 15-foot (4.5 meter) wide payload bay for cargo and a that could carry several satellites into orbit at once.


The orbiter measures 122 feet (37 meters) long and 57 feet (17 meters) high on the runway. Its wingspan is 78 feet (24 meters).


Each space shuttle is named after an influential ship in history. The prototype Enterprise, which never flew in space, was supposed to be named Constitution but was coined Enterprise after the starship on the popular series Star Trek, following a massive write-in campaign by fans.

Explore further: NASA revises shuttle launch dates

Related Stories

NASA revises shuttle launch dates

February 18, 2008

The U.S. space agency has revised the launch dates for space shuttle flights during the second half of 2008, necessitated by the delayed STS-122 launch.

Space Shuttle Atlantis Arrives at Launch Pad

November 12, 2007

After safely reaching its launch pad Saturday at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the space shuttle Atlantis now awaits its next major milestone for the upcoming STS-122 mission. The full launch dress rehearsal is scheduled from ...

Space Shuttle Closer to Launch

February 14, 2007

Space Shuttle Atlantis was mated to the orange external tank and twin solid rocket boosters last week. The entire assembly is stacked on the mobile launcher platform and is targeted to roll out to Launch Pad 39A on February ...

NASA Aims for 4 Shuttle Flights in 2007

April 17, 2007

NASA has announced a revised launch schedule for the upcoming Space Shuttle missions. The revised schedule follows a review of repairs to the insulation on the Shuttle's external fuel tank, which was damaged during a sudden ...

Recommended for you

Gaia spies two temporarily magnified stars

October 28, 2016

While scanning the sky to measure the position of over one billion stars in our Galaxy, ESA's Gaia satellite has detected two rare instances of stars whose light was temporarily boosted by other celestial objects passing ...

More than 15,000 near-Earth objects and counting

October 28, 2016

The international effort to find, confirm and catalogue the multitude of asteroids that pose a threat to our planet has reached a milestone: 15 000 discovered – with many more to go.

How planets like Jupiter form

October 28, 2016

Young giant planets are born from gas and dust. Researchers of ETH Zürich and the Universities of Zürich and Bern simulated different scenarios relying on the computing power of the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.