Science & Tech

Spaceships: Shuttles and Beyond

Chris Hadfield

Lesson time 18:32 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.

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

Topics include: Shuttles: Reusable Reentry Modules • Buran • Winged or Wingless? • The Future of Spaceship Design


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 ...

About the Instructor

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.

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Chris Hadfield

The former commander of the International Space Station teaches you the science of space exploration and what the future holds.

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