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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
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.

One of the best , lecture series I have ever attended. As an aspiring individual with hopes to achieving some success in the betterment of humanity , this Masterclass has given me the necessary tools and mindset to accomplish my dreams and provided an outlook on what I wanted to do later in life.

This astronaut is a hero in every medium I have seen him speak and inspire. He is here, on TedTalk, and on youtube doing science and music. In top 10!

Beyond my expectations, not interested in space and he got to me, loved the subject matter, t hank you

Beyond anything I could have expected I will watch it several times


Bernardo F.

I remember having a 3D puzzle of the Space Shuttle when I was a kid, and I think I watched a launch as well as a take-on... And, for me, that machine, that enormous airplane was amazing. Later, and now, that I learned more about it, my amazement just grows bigger. Two weeks ago we saw a new launch, what are we gonna see in the next decades?

Zente S.

how will the Mars Rocket fly? (the rocket that will take us to Mars)

A fellow student

When Mr. Hadfield talked about propulsion systems (solid, liquid, electric), I kept thinking Nuclear. Wouldn't a nuclear solution require that less % of the ship would need to be fuel / engine? It must be too dangerous or something. Perhaps as dangerous as an atomic bomb explosion on the launching pad if something went wrong. How about something that is electro-magnetic? I am not even sure how that works. But something has to allow us to get to Mars faster, and with a larger payload of people and / or gear.

William D.

Completely omits the economic reasons why shuttle looked the way it did. Economics drove many if not all major decisions. USAF had a major input on the required capabilities of the final shuttle design. That's why the wings were a delta shape rather than straight that NASA originally wanted. While lesson mentioned the heat resistance of the tiles. It completely ignored their fragility and the consequences. Reference is "The Space Shuttle Decision: 1965 - 1972" by Heppenheimer from Smithsonian Press.

A fellow student

When I was a kid I lived in Wellesley Ma and we had an astronaut who went to our church there. In 1980-1982 ish after we had moved to California we went out to Edwards Air force base to watch him land in a shuttle. It was just like that. Sonic boom and all. Amazing experience.

Mário Filipe P.

Great lesson about one of the most significant and remarkable spacecrafts in Human history. It was great to learn more about its capabilities, versatility and limitations. It still amazes me how it was possible for it to be launched like a rocket, orbit like a Space Station, re-enter the atmosphere like a capsule, and land like a airplane. All of this, while carrying crew and cargo on board. It was absolutely incredible! My interest for the Universe and Space Exploration, came long after the end of the Space Shuttle Program, so it makes me sad that I missed pretty much everything about it back in the day. It really was a fantastic machine.

Maddie W.

Such a fun and engaging discussion on shuttle design. I've always loved playing with these models as a child and I like to keep up-to-date on NASA news and SpaceX developments and things like that. It was interesting to learn how these ships were designed and why they have certain features. I always used to fly my toy space shuttle around the house like an airplane so it feels really cool to understand a little bit more about the wings and their shape and function. (I still have the model–with little astronaut figures too! See attached picture :D) I want to thank Chris Hadfield for taking us on such a fun and informative journey and for inspiring us to always hold on to the curiosity and wonder of our childhood.

A fellow student

I would like to ask a question did the Russians have solar panels when they launched Sputnik because it only had batteries at the time of the launch or did the Russians just not have enough time


Spaceships look very claustrophobic to me. I wouldn't last 5 minutes in one. Sci-Fi shows make spaceships look so lovely because the reality is, most people wouldn't enjoy watching a bunch of guys shoved in a clown car to get to space. The whole thing is fascinating to me. The fact that you have to bring fuel and oxygen with you was a wake-up call to the harsh realities of space travel.

A fellow student

Really good. When the divers reach the capsule as it lands back in the sea, is it still hot to touch and what does impact feel like to the crew inside as it hits the water> Ian Boswell