How the Space Shuttle Lands: Landing as a Glider

Space Shuttle Landing

Most of us have seen a space shuttle blast off into space.  Using massive amounts of rocket fuel and rocket propulsion, it lifts off through Earth’s atmosphere and into outer space.  During lift-off, it loses some of its booster rockets as part of the process, reducing the amount of thrust it has at its disposal.  At the end of its mission, the spacecraft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, with the goal being a safe landing and the safe return of the crew aboard.  Yet, without having the engines that a typical passenger jet would have or the fuel to power them once the shuttle enters the atmosphere, the space shuttle seems as though it would be difficult to control and steer during its landing.  How does a space shuttle land safely?

A space shuttle that is undergoing the landing phase of its mission undergoes a series of steps to ensure a safe and proper landing.  During its return path, a series of automated calculations occur that  pilot the ship on a path towards the designated landing area.  Similarily, another step is to ensure the spacecraft is properly rotated to allow the landing gear to land on the runway.

As the shuttle enters the atmosphere, all fuel is emptied as a safety measure to help avoid any potential explosions or fires due the intense heat the shuttle will experience from friction as it passes through the atmosphere at extremely high speeds.

During the landing, command of shuttle is given to the commander of the mission.  Keep in mind that as a space shuttle lands, it lacks propulsion capabilities due to a lack of fuel.  As such, it is actually considered to be a glider aircraft.  The commander must expertly utilize the momentum the craft has from its re-entry, making several careful adjustments throughout the landing, timing everything so that the craft properly lands on the runway.

Once the shuttle has landed, a parachute opens on the back to help slow the craft down.  If everything goes correctly, the space shuttle stops on the ground safely and the crew can return home!

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