August 14, 2022

A space shuttle, in the field of astronautics, conventionally designates a space vehicle that can return to Earth by making a controlled landing like an airplane or a glider and can be reused for a subsequent mission. This concept is opposed to that of spacecraft, such as Soyuz, Shenzhou or Apollo performing a quasi-ballistic reentry and landing using parachutes and retrorockets. The concept was originally associated with lowering the costs of putting artificial satellites (commercial or military) into orbit, space station elements and the possibility of carrying out maintenance operations in low orbit. In practice, the American space shuttle, the only one to have had a significant operational life, played an important role essentially in placing the main components of the international space station in orbit. In its other missions, it is advantageously replaced by conventional launchers. Following the cessation of space shuttle missions in 2011, NASA plans to return to conventional spacecraft (Orion, Crew Dragon, CST-100 Starliner). On the American side, six shuttles were built, five of which were intended for orbital flight (Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour) and one for flight testing (Enterprise). The Soviets, meanwhile, built twelve shuttles, five of which were intended for orbital flight, although only one of them flew: Buran. Other shuttle projects of a more modest size have seen, or nearly seen the light of day, Hermès and the Space Rider on the European side, the Dream Chaser or the X-37b on the American side, the BOR shuttles (first space shuttles in the history ) or the Klipper project on the Soviet side.

Key Features

Partially or totally reusable gear

Space shuttles are vessels designed to offer partial or total reuse, reducing launch costs. This system must also allow the return to Earth of satellites or space station modules for the purpose of repair. In practice, no space shuttle is fully reusable, given that they were all launched by conventional rockets, although total reuse was considered. On the American side, the SRBs (booster boosters) of the American space shuttle were recovered under parachutes in the Atlantic Ocean, in order to be reused. However, seawater corrosion and powder residues in the booster segments made this reuse inefficient and very expensive. The Dream Chaser, an unmanned space shuttle project, will have to fly on the Vulcan launcher, which will have the particularity of having reusable engines, the BE-4s returning under parachutes after the flight. On the Soviet side, Energiya, the Buran shuttle launcher, was designed to be fully reusable. Its boosters should have come back to land on Earth thanks to parachutes and landing feet, where the first stage should have been equipped in its final version with a wing allowing it to come back to land on a runway while gliding. Eventually, the boosters should have been equipped with folding wings and aircraft engines. In practice, Energiya was never reused, the compartments containing the parachutes having been filled with flight measurement instruments on the first flight of the heavy launcher. Uncertainty nevertheless persists on the second flight of Energiya, where the reuse of boosters may have been attempted. On the European side, the Hermès shuttle project has enabled the development of a parachute return for the two Ariane 5 EAPs, using parachutes supplied by the Russians, derived from those which should have