The most complex machine ever built, the Space Shuttle represents the pinnacle of scientific achievement. One can only speak about it in superlatives. It has more than 2,5 million parts, including 370 kilometers of wire, around 1060 valves and various connections, more than 1440 circuit breakers, and over 27,000 insulating tiles and thermal blankets. Within eight and a half minute after launch, the Space Shuttle achieves the speed of 28,000 kilometers per hours to reach to Earth’s orbit. This is 6 times faster than a bullet fired from any rifle. Once it’s in orbit around Earth, and traveling at that speed, the crew can see a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes.
You would imagine that the shuttles would have some mileage to them, after spending all that time in flight,and considering the speed it travels at, and you would be right. The combined mileage of all five space orbiters is over 826.7 million kilometers, and each one of them, except the Challenger, traveled the distance that is larger than the distance between Earth and the Sun. Being so complex and massive, it weighs a lot. The heaviest space shuttle orbiter, The Columbia, weighed 80,700 kilograms, the most of all shuttles, because the scientists at NASA were still looking for lightweight materials which they could implement in the construction of the shuttle, which they did on later models.
In order to withstand the intense heat when the shuttle re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it uses a Thermal Protection System, or heat shield, comprised of more than 30,000 ceramic tiles, which are essentially made out of sand. They are such great insulators, that you can hold in them your hand only one minute after they have been heated to peak temperature. That’s how fast they cool down.
The Space Shuttle includes several large modules, such as Orbiter Vehicle, a pair of recoverable Solid Rocket Boosters, and an expendable External tank, which carries liquid nitrogen and liquid hydrogen. Both nitrogen and hydrogen are used to power the shuttle’s main engine, therefore, the majority of exhaust produced is water vapor. Producing 44 million horsepower, the shuttle’s rocket boosters consume a large amount of solid rocket fuel, more than 10 tons each second, in the shape of aluminum powder, which is essentially a different form of the same material we use as tin foil in our kitchens. The three main shuttle engines, on the other hand, produce more power than generated by 13 Hoover Dams.
There were a total of five space shuttle orbiters. The first one, dubbed the Enterprise, was constructed for the sole purpose of Approach and Landing Test and had no ability of flying into orbit. Four fully operational shuttles were initially constructed: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis. Unfortunately, Challenger and Columbia were lost in mission accidents that took the lives of fourteen astronauts in total, in 1986 and 2003. Endeavour was built in 1991 as a replacement for Challenger. The Space Shuttle was retired from service as Atlantis made its final flight on July 21, 2011.