Meet the Orbiters

A fleet of winged spacecraft, the likes of which we’ll never see again.

Atlantis as seen from the International Space Station in February 2001. (NASA)

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“The orbiter is a completely different vehicle than anything that has ever flown in space,” says John Shannon, program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “It was a work platform, a spacewalk platform, a construction site with a robotic arm, a laboratory, a people mover. It was a complex vehicle operating at the edge of its performance, with very little margin for error.”

With each flight, NASA not only launched a crew to complete a mission but also gathered important information on high-Mach, or hypersonic, aerodynamics in a little-understood environment. “There are a lot of areas where we do not understand perfectly all of the physics that are going on. And the shuttle’s been a good vehicle for testing a lot of that out,” says Shannon. The agency will analyze data from the last mission just as it did all the others; to do otherwise “and think we know everything would be a huge mistake,” Shannon says. “We’re going to have a lot of interesting data. And how does this directly tie to the next program? Well, you don’t know because you don’t know what the next program is.”

Whatever does come, the engineers of tomorrow will almost surely reminisce that there was only one space shuttle. Five, actually.

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