Science & Technology

Spaceships: Shuttles and Beyond

Chris Hadfield

Lesson time 18:33 min

Two-thirds of those who’ve flown to space got there on a Space Shuttle. Chris outlines the design of the Shuttle, the impact of its reusability, and how spacecraft will evolve in the future.

Chris Hadfield
Teaches Space Exploration
In 28+ lessons, the former commander of the International Space Station teaches you the science of space exploration and what the future holds.
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After going to the moon, we thought let's try and make this reusable. Let's try and instead of making every single shot this enormous rocket that can only be used once, let's try and build a spaceship that's more like an airplane. And that was the genesis for the space shuttle. It's a very name, to shuttle us to space and back. It's obviously not a capsule. It has wings it has a tail. But it still has to solve the same problems coming back into the atmosphere. It's launched as a rocket. It's been in space for a few weeks, maybe docked to a space station or releasing the Hubble telescope or something. But now when it's time to come home, we basically have to solve the same problems as any previous spaceship, as any capsule. So the bottom of the space shuttle is covered with all of this thermal protection equipment-- thick heavy tile, but not something that burns off like on the capsules. In fact, this is a blown ceramic. It almost feels like that blue insulation that might be on the wall of your house. That if you poked it with your finger, you could actually stick your finger into the bottom of the shuttle. But these tiles were so thermally resistant that you could hold one end in your hand and have a blowtorch and the other end. One end of the tile could be glowing red hot, and it just would not transmit the heat through to your hand. Same on the bottom of the shuttle. The bottom could be glowing thousands of degrees, but just through to the aluminum skin just a few inches away would be protected from the heat. We had to steer the space shuttle all the way down. And you start into the atmosphere with your nose about 40 degrees high because, just as Max Faget had designed, we want to put our big flat belly into the atmosphere, so that we can spread the heat over as big an area as possible. And it's hard to fly a ship with its nose 40 degrees up. It takes some really careful computer control to be able to steer it as we're targeting coming back to land in Florida or in California, but at the same time, absorbing all of that heat and energy that the atmosphere is punishing us with. And us, here, looking out the windows-- same thing. This is steadily increasing yellow to orange to sort of a combination of red, yellow, and orange, all licking around the windows. You are riding a meteorite home, flying a meteorite back to the earth as you slow down from mach 25. We sort of call about 400,000 feet as the top of the atmosphere. We started flying the vehicle. As we got lower in the atmosphere, the air became slowly thicker and thicker. And so instead of just firing thrusters all around the shuttle to control which way it was pointing, we can start to use these big control surfaces on the back. The big elevons, and this great, big rudder started to take effect. That's why the rudder is so big, because we were going so fast, and we wanted to be able to steer through the atmosphere. We even had this big body flap on the bottom to be able ...

Explore the unknown

Impossible things happen. At age nine, Chris Hadfield knew he wanted to go to space. He eventually went there three times, becoming a commander of the International Space Station. In his MasterClass, Chris teaches you what it takes to explore space and what the future holds for humans in the final frontier. Learn about the science of space travel, life as an astronaut, and how flying in space will forever change the way you think about living on Earth.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I was dream to be an astronaut . But right now in my 20s I don't think I could be one. This class has bring back my old dream and give me so much live lessons and new perspective. I really love this class.

Life is one decision at a time to take one step at a time to reach one goal at a time.

I am 13 years old and have a very strong interest in space exploration. I have always wanted to learn more about the ISS, Mars, etc and now I have. I enjoyed this class very much and look forward to taking other classes. I do think there should be more classes about science, astronomy, genetics, etc.

This course helped me learn more about space and space exploration than I've ever known. Chris Hadfield taught or reminded me of life lessons I still needed to remember. Thank you.


Ronald A.

Deorbiting burn over Australia, heading East toward California. Is it adequate to understand that landing needs the Earth rotation has well as in launch for energy saving.

Jeff M.

Captivating information presented in a fun, understandable way. I would greatly enjoy Commander Hadfield discussing some Shuttle normal and emergency procedures. Really great! Thx!

Scott R.

Awesome Class and Instruction. I vote to avoid a nuclear powered vehicle. After a melt down was prevented at the Hanford reactor (approximately 1958), calculations showed that would have been an extinction event if the initial lab sample had been relied upon. Risk would be kind of like tight roping. Each of the 3 V-shape containers contained plutonium. 3 critical masses = 1 extinction.


Having been associated @ Hughes Space &Com with the space program the orbiter design was most usable and efficient for the missions scheduled.

Jim C.

Would it make sense to shoot people into space in a small capsule, then dock with a large maneuverable spacecraft already in space, to fly to wherever? Like a small boat/dinghy transporting sailors to a larger ship.

Sergio N A.

Physico- chemical LS like Sabatier can be very useful for small spaceships but for larger ones for interplanetary travel will probably need a combination of Sabatier and a Controlled Ecological Life Support System to at least resemble earthlike atmosphere. Back-up system should be carried. On the astronauts psychological level, perhaps we need astronauts that are "metaphysically " motivated to prevent much of the psychological boredom and other problems that occurs in prolonged spaceflights . A rotating spacecrafts is needed to simulate earthlike gravity to prevent all the genetic, metabolic, physiologic and medical hazards of prolonged exposure to microgravity. We do not need crippled or dying astronauts landing on Mars or any moons of Jupiter or Saturn in the future . FROM DR.SERGIO ANDRES JR.

A fellow student

Enjoyed this lesson! My dad was one of the designers of the shuttle cargo bay and I appreciate your acknowledgment of the wonderful machine it was!

Judith H.

Love this lesson. I really think we may need to build better virtual reality to keep the crew engaged on the journey to mars, like he was saying. Perhaps a second life that could be lived while on board?

A fellow student

My favorite, "...because then the Shuttle went from being a bad glider to really horrible glider when we put the wheels down." Such engaging insight. Thank you.

Aaron M.

Perhaps the most efficient solution to the "drivin' and cryin'" psychological challenges that could crop up on the way to Mars has already been solved very neatly in science fiction movies like Space Odyssey 2001, Aliens and Passengers: cryogenic (induced hibernation) sleep. But is it really possible and what will the unpleasant side effects be? Worst hangover ever for 3 weeks? As Gunny Highway says: "You improvise, adapt and overcome". A holodeck will be too big and bulky - unless we are starting the trip from spacedock as Kirk and the crew do with the Enterprise in the most recent incarnations of Star Trek. Forget Mars for a minute - who among us can't wait for sub-orbital global travel in hyper-sonic lifting bodies so that trip to Kowloon takes only 4 hours instead of the eye-bleeding 14?