Landing the Space Shuttle

How a Space Shuttle Lands


“space shuttle Atlantis, STS-86” by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The space shuttle faced a problem when landing, it was orbiting Earth at over 17,000 mph with almost no air resistance or engine power to help slow it down. Thankfully though, when flying tail-first, the engines could slow it down just enough (225 mph) to start falling into the atmosphere where the air resistance is larger. At this point the pilots use the last engine power to pitch the shuttle up to a 40 degree angle of attack, where the plane will be protected by specialized silica tiles so that it doesn’t melt on reentry.


As the ship descends further into the atmosphere and hits denser air, its wings will generate lift and it will start to bounce off the atmosphere. If they pitch the shuttle back any further to reduce lift, the astronauts risk losing control, so they roll the ship on its side which also allows the pilots to control the speed of descent because the closer they roll to a full 90 degrees, the faster they descend. This technique will cause the orbiter to bank away from the landing zone, meaning it will need to roll left and right creating a sort of snake-like “s” motion to stay on-track to the runway.


As the space shuttle slows down it begins to fly more and more like a regular airplane, just a really bad one. Because it is so un-aerodynamic it has a descent rate of 10,000 feet per minute, compared to a commercial airliner’s usual descent rate of 750 feet per minute on landing. When the orbiter finally reaches the runway it descends in a spiral to line itself up with the runway and allow more time to descend, before extending landing gear and touching down.




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