The space shuttle's history in pictures

The space shuttle's history in pictures

Summary: Atlantis's mission to the International Space Station is the final flight in the 30-year-old space shuttle programme, which has pushed technology to its limits

TOPICS: After Hours

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  • Shuttle launch

    Discovery arcs into the sky after launching on a mission in 2009.

    All shuttle missions launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Until 2007, Nasa avoided launching the craft in December-January time as it was feared its 1970s-era computers might suffer a glitch on New Year's Eve that would set the ship's clock back to zero.

    On launch, the shuttle must hit a speed of almost 28,968 kph. After eight seconds, the craft is travelling at just 259kph; by the 60-second mark, it is speeding at 1,609kph. By the time the external tank has dropped away, the shuttle has burned more than 1.59 million kg of fuel. Once in orbit, it has a velocity of 17,500mph, making it the fastest winged vehicle in history.

    Steven Lindsey, commander of Discovery's last mission, highlighted the shuttle's adaptability in an interview with CBS News. "It can't leave low Earth orbit, but it can do everything else," he said.

    His opinions were echoed by Atlantis astronaut Sandra Magnus before the final mission. "It built the space station, it's done science missions that ranged from taking the Spacelab up, to the big radar missions we've done, it's done astronomy, it's done biological science, materials science and then it's done satellite deploy, repair and retrieve," she said. "It's an incredible legacy this vehicle has given us."

    Photo credit: Nasa

  • Space shuttle cockpit

    The shuttle features four onboard computers running the same software on different hardware, which together check each other's work. A fifth backup computer runs an entirely separate system in the event the other four fail.

    In 1990, Nasa upgraded the computers, raising the memory 2.5 times to 1MB.

    From 1999, 'glass cockpit' technology was added to the orbiters, providing more up-to-date display screens on the flight deck.

    Photo credit: Nasa

  • Shuttle landing in desert

    Discovery glides to a landing at Edwards Air Force base in 2008. 

    The shuttle typically begins its return flight around half the world away from its landing site. It angles its nose up at 40 degrees, allowing the black tiling underneath to bear the brunt of the 1,600° C heat of re-entry.

    When the craft drops below the speed of sound, at around 50,000 feet, the commander takes control. Despite the similarity of its shape to an ordinary aircraft, the shuttle makes its final approach to the runway 20 times faster than the average plane.

    The shuttle was originally intended to have air-breathing jet engines to allow it to fly as an aircraft on re-entry; however, cost and weight considerations left it entirely unpowered during the descent, making it the heaviest and fastest glider in history.

    Photo credit: Nasa

Topic: After Hours

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