In the launch configuration, the orbiter and two solid rocket boosters are attached to the external tank in a vertical (nose-up) position on the launch pad. Each solid rocket booster is attached at its aft skirt to the mobile launcher platform by four bolts.

Emergency exit for the flight crew on the launch pad up to 30 seconds before lift-off is by slidewire. There are seven 1,200-foot- long slidewires, each with one basket. Each basket is designed to carry three persons. The baskets, 5 feet in diameter and 42 inches deep, are suspended beneath the slide mechanism by four cables. The slidewires carry the baskets to ground level. Upon departing the basket at ground level, the flight crew progresses to a bunker that is designed to protect it from an explosion on the launch pad.

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At launch, the three space shuttle main engines-fed liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid oxygen oxidizer from the external tank-are ignited first. When it has been verified that the engines are operating at the proper thrust level, a signal is sent to ignite the solid rocket boosters. At the proper thrust-to-weight ratio, initiators (small explosives) at eight hold-down bolts on the solid rocket boosters are fired to release the space shuttle for lift-off. All this takes only a few seconds.

Maximum dynamic pressure is reached early in the ascent, nominally approximately 60 seconds after lift-off.

Approximately a minute later (two minutes into the ascent phase), the two solid rocket boosters have consumed their propellant and are jettisoned from the external tank. This is triggered by a separation signal from the orbiter.

The boosters briefly continue to ascend, while small motors fire to carry them away from the space shuttle. The boosters then turn and descend, and at a predetermined altitude, parachutes are deployed to decelerate them for a safe splashdown in the ocean. Splashdown occurs approximately 141 nautical miles (162 statute miles) from the launch site. The boosters are recovered and reused.

Meanwhile, the orbiter and external tank continue to ascend, using the thrust of the three space shuttle main engines. Approximately eight minutes after launch and just short of orbital velocity, the three space shuttle engines are shut down (main engine cutoff), and the external tank is jettisoned on command from the orbiter.

The forward and aft reaction control system engines provide attitude (pitch, yaw and roll) and the translation of the orbiter away from the external tank at separation and return to attitude hold prior to the orbital maneuvering system thrusting maneuver.

The external tank continues on a ballistic trajectory and enters the atmosphere, where it disintegrates. Its projected impact is in the Indian Ocean (except for 57-degree inclinations) in the case of equatorial orbits (Kennedy Space Center launch) and in the extreme southern Pacific Ocean in the case of a Vandenberg Air Force Base launch.

Normally, two thrusting maneuvers using the two orbital maneuvering system engines at the aft end of the orbiter are used in a two-step thrusting sequence: to complete insertion into Earth orbit and to circularize the spacecraft's orbit. The orbital maneuvering system engines are also used on orbit for any major velocity changes.

In the event of a direct-insertion mission, only one orbital maneuvering system thrusting sequence is used.

The orbital altitude of a mission is dependent upon that mission. The nominal altitude can vary between 100 to 217 nautical miles (115 to 250 statute miles).

The forward and aft reaction control system thrusters (engines) provide attitude control of the orbiter as well as any minor translation maneuvers along a given axis on orbit.

At the completion of orbital operations, the orbiter is oriented in a tailfirst attitude by the reaction control system. The two orbital maneuvering system engines are commanded to slow the orbiter for deorbit.

The reaction control system turns the orbiter's nose forward for entry. The reaction control system controls the orbiter until atmospheric density is sufficient for the pitch and roll aerodynamic control surfaces to become effective.

Entry interface is considered to occur at 400,000 feet altitude approximately 4,400 nautical miles (5,063 statute miles) from the landing site and at approximately 25,000 feet per second velocity.

At 400,000 feet altitude, the orbiter is maneuvered to zero degrees roll and yaw (wings level) and at a predetermined angle of attack for entry. The angle of attack is 40 degrees. The flight control system issues the commands to roll, pitch and yaw reaction control system jets for rate damping.

The forward reaction control system engines are inhibited prior to entry interface, and the aft reaction control system engines maneuver the spacecraft until a dynamic pressure of 10 pounds per square foot is sensed, which is when the orbiter's ailerons become effective. The aft reaction control system roll engines are then deactivated. At a dynamic pressure of 20 pounds per square foot, the orbiter's elevators become active, and the aft reaction control system pitch engines are deactivated. The orbiter's speed brake is used below Mach 10 to induce a more positive downward elevator trim deflection. At approximately Mach 3.5, the rudder becomes activated, and the aft reaction control system yaw engines are deactivated at 45,000 feet.

Entry guidance must dissipate the tremendous amount of energy the orbiter possesses when it enters the Earth's atmosphere to assure that the orbiter does not either burn up (entry angle too steep) or skip out of the atmosphere (entry angle too shallow) and that the orbiter is properly positioned to reach the desired touchdown point.

During entry, energy is dissipated by the atmospheric drag on the orbiter's surface. Higher atmospheric drag levels enable faster energy dissipation with a steeper trajectory. Normally, the angle of attack and roll angle enable the atmospheric drag of any flight vehicle to be controlled. However, for the orbiter, angle of attack was rejected because it creates surface temperatures above the design specification. The angle of attack scheduled during entry is loaded into the orbiter computers as a function of relative velocity, leaving roll angle for energy control. Increasing the roll angle decreases the vertical component of lift, causing a higher sink rate and energy dissipation rate. Increasing the roll rate does raise the surface temperature of the orbiter, but not nearly as drastically as an equal angle of attack command.

If the orbiter is low on energy (current range-to-go much greater than nominal at current velocity), entry guidance will command lower than nominal drag levels. If the orbiter has too much energy (current range-to-go much less than nominal at the current velocity), entry guidance will command higher-than-nominal drag levels to dissipate the extra energy.

Roll angle is used to control cross range. Azimuth error is the angle between the plane containing the orbiter's position vector and the heading alignment cylinder tangency point and the plane containing the orbiter's position vector and velocity vector. When the azimuth error exceeds a computer-loaded number, the orbiter's roll angle is reversed.

Thus, descent rate and downranging are controlled by bank angle. The steeper the bank angle, the greater the descent rate and the greater the drag. Conversely, the minimum drag attitude is wings level. Cross range is controlled by bank reversals.

The entry thermal control phase is designed to keep the backface temperatures within the design limits. A constant heating rate is established until below 19,000 feet per second.

The equilibrium glide phase shifts the orbiter from the rapidly increasing drag levels of the temperature control phase to the constant drag level of the constant drag phase. The equilibrium glide flight is defined as flight in which the flight path angle, the angle between the local horizontal and the local velocity vector, remains constant. Equilibrium glide flight provides the maximum downrange capability. It lasts until the drag acceleration reaches 33 feet per second squared.

The constant drag phase begins at that point. The angle of attack is initially 40 degrees, but it begins to ramp down in this phase to approximately 36 degrees by the end of this phase.

In the transition phase, the angle of attack continues to ramp down, reaching the approximately 14-degree angle of attack at the entry terminal area energy management interface, at approximately 83,000 feet altitude, 2,500 feet per second, Mach 2.5 and 52 nautical miles (59 statute miles) from the landing runway. Control is then transferred to TAEM guidance.

During the entry phases described, the orbiter's roll commands keep the orbiter on the drag profile and control cross range.

TAEM guidance steers the orbiter to the nearest of two heading alignment cylinders, whose radii are approximately 18,000 feet and which are located tangent to and on either side of the runway centerline on the approach end. In TAEM guidance, excess energy is dissipated with an S-turn; and the speed brake can be utilized to modify drag, lift-to-drag ratio and flight path angle in high-energy conditions. This increases the ground track range as the orbiter turns away from the nearest HAC until sufficient energy is dissipated to allow a normal approach and landing guidance phase capture, which begins at 10,000 feet altitude. The orbiter also can be flown near the velocity for maximum lift over drag or wings level for the range stretch case. The spacecraft slows to subsonic velocity at approximately 49,000 feet altitude, about 22 nautical miles (25.3 statute miles) from the landing site.

At TAEM acquisition, the orbiter is turned until it is aimed at a point tangent to the nearest HAC and continues until it reaches way point 1. At WP-1, the TAEM heading alignment phase begins. The HAC is followed until landing runway alignment, plus or minus 20 degrees, has been achieved. In the TAEM prefinal phase, the orbiter leaves the HAC; pitches down to acquire the steep glide slope; increases airspeed; banks to acquire the runway centerline; and continues until on the runway centerline, on the outer glide slope and on airspeed. The approach and landing guidance phase begins with the completion of the TAEM prefinal phase and ends when the spacecraft comes to a complete stop on the runway.

The approach and landing trajectory capture phase begins at the TAEM interface and continues to guidance lock-on to the steep outer glide slope. The approach and landing phase begins at about 10,000 feet altitude at an equivalent airspeed of 290, plus or minus 12, knots 6.9 nautical miles (7.9 statute miles) from touchdown. Autoland guidance is initiated at this point to guide the orbiter to the minus 19- to 17-degree glide slope (which is over seven times that of a commercial airliner's approach) aimed at a target 0.86 nautical mile (1 statute mile) in front of the runway. The spacecraft's speed brake is positioned to hold the proper velocity. The descent rate in the later portion of TAEM and approach and landing is greater than 10,000 feet per minute (a rate of descent approximately 20 times higher than a commercial airliner's standard 3-degree instrument approach angle).

At 1,750 feet above ground level, a preflare maneuver is started to position the spacecraft for a 1.5-degree glide slope in preparation for landing with the speed brake positioned as required. The flight crew deploys the landing gear at this point.

The final phase reduces the sink rate of the spacecraft to less than 9 feet per second. Touchdown occurs approximately 2,500 feet past the runway threshold at a speed of 184 to 196 knots (213 to 226 mph).


    Selection of an ascent abort mode may become necessary if there is a failure that affects vehicle performance, such as the failure of a space shuttle main engine or an orbital maneuvering system. Other failures requiring early termination of a flight, such as a cabin leak, might require the selection of an abort mode.

    There are two basic types of ascent abort modes for space shuttle missions: intact aborts and contingency aborts. Intact aborts are designed to provide a safe return of the orbiter to a planned landing site. Contingency aborts are designed to permit flight crew survival following more severe failures when an intact abort is not possible. A contingency abort would generally result in a ditch operation.

    There are four types of intact aborts: abort to orbit, abort once around, transatlantic landing and return to launch site.

    The ATO mode is designed to allow the vehicle to achieve a temporary orbit that is lower than the nominal orbit. This mode requires less performance and allows time to evaluate problems and then choose either an early deorbit maneuver or an orbital maneuvering system thrusting maneuver to raise the orbit and continue the mission.

    The AOA is designed to allow the vehicle to fly once around the Earth and make a normal entry and landing. This mode generally involves two orbital maneuvering system thrusting sequences, with the second sequence being a deorbit maneuver. The entry sequence would be similar to a normal entry.

    The TAL mode is designed to permit an intact landing on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. This mode results in a ballistic trajectory, which does not require an orbital maneuvering system maneuver.

    The RTLS mode involves flying downrange to dissipate propellant and then turning around under power to return directly to a landing at or near the launch site.

    There is a definite order of preference for the various abort modes. The type of failure and the time of the failure determine which type of abort is selected. In cases where performance loss is the only factor, the preferred modes would be ATO, AOA, TAL and RTLS, in that order. The mode chosen is the highest one that can be completed with the remaining vehicle performance. In the case of some support system failures, such as cabin leaks or vehicle cooling problems, the preferred mode might be the one that will end the mission most quickly. In these cases, TAL or RTLS might be preferable to AOA or ATO. A contingency abort is never chosen if another abort option exists.

    The Mission Control Center-Houston is prime for calling these aborts because it has a more precise knowledge of the orbiter's position than the crew can obtain from onboard systems. Before main engine cutoff, Mission Control makes periodic calls to the crew to tell them which abort mode is (or is not) available. If ground communications are lost, the flight crew has onboard methods, such as cue cards, dedicated displays and display information, to determine the current abort region.

    Which abort mode is selected depends on the cause and timing of the failure causing the abort and which mode is safest or improves mission success. If the problem is a space shuttle main engine failure, the flight crew and Mission Control Center select the best option available at the time a space shuttle main engine fails.

    If the problem is a system failure that jeopardizes the vehicle, the fastest abort mode that results in the earliest vehicle landing is chosen. RTLS and TAL are the quickest options (35 minutes), whereas an AOA requires approximately 90 minutes. Which of these is selected depends on the time of the failure with three good space shuttle main engines.

    The flight crew selects the abort mode by positioning an abort mode switch and depressing an abort push button.


    The RTLS abort mode is designed to allow the return of the orbiter, crew, and payload to the launch site, Kennedy Space Center. approximately 25 minutes after lift-off. The RTLS profile is designed to accommodate the loss of thrust from one space shuttle main engine between lift-off and approximately four minutes 20 seconds, at which time not enough main propulsion system propellant remains to return to the launch site.

    An RTLS can be considered to consist of three stages-a powered stage, during which the space shuttle main engines are still thrusting; an ET separation phase; and the glide phase, during which the orbiter glides to a landing at the Kennedy Space Center. The powered RTLS phase begins with the crew selection of the RTLS abort, which is done after solid rocket booster separation. The crew selects the abort mode by positioning the abort rotary switch to RTLS and depressing the abort push button. The time at which the RTLS is selected depends on the reason for the abort. For example, a three-engine RTLS is selected at the last moment, approximately three minutes 34 seconds into the mission; whereas an RTLS chosen due to an engine out at lift-off is selected at the earliest time, approximately two minutes 20 seconds into the mission (after solid rocket booster separation).

    After RTLS is selected, the vehicle continues downrange to dissipate excess main propulsion system propellant. The goal is to leave only enough main propulsion system propellant to be able to turn the vehicle around, fly back towards the Kennedy Space Center and achieve the proper main engine cutoff conditions so the vehicle can glide to the Kennedy Space Center after external tank separation. During the downrange phase, a pitch-around maneuver is initiated (the time depends in part on the time of a space shuttle main engine failure) to orient the orbiter/external tank configuration to a heads up attitude, pointing toward the launch site. At this time, the vehicle is still moving away from the launch site, but the space shuttle main engines are now thrusting to null the downrange velocity. In addition, excess orbital maneuvering system and reaction control system propellants are dumped by continuous orbital maneuvering system and reaction control system engine thrustings to improve the orbiter weight and center of gravity for the glide phase and landing.

    The vehicle will reach the desired main engine cutoff point with less than 2 percent excess propellant remaining in the external tank. At main engine cutoff minus 20 seconds, a pitch-down maneuver (called powered pitch-down) takes the mated vehicle to the required external tank separation attitude and pitch rate. After main engine cutoff has been commanded, the external tank separation sequence begins, including a reaction control system translation that ensures that the orbiter does not recontact the external tank and that the orbiter has achieved the necessary pitch attitude to begin the glide phase of the RTLS.

    After the reaction control system translation maneuver has been completed, the glide phase of the RTLS begins. From then on, the RTLS is handled similarly to a normal entry.


    The TAL abort mode was developed to improve the options available when a space shuttle main engine fails after the last RTLS opportunity but before the first time that an AOA can be accomplished with only two space shuttle main engines or when a major orbiter system failure, for example, a large cabin pressure leak or cooling system failure, occurs after the last RTLS opportunity, making it imperative to land as quickly as possible.

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    In a TAL abort, the vehicle continues on a ballistic trajectory across the Atlantic Ocean to land at a predetermined runway. Landing occurs approximately 45 minutes after launch. The landing site is selected near the nominal ascent ground track of the orbiter in order to make the most efficient use of space shuttle main engine propellant. The landing site also must have the necessary runway length, weather conditions and U.S. State Department approval. Currently, the three landing sites that have been identified for a due east launch are Moron,, Spain; Dakar, Senegal; and Ben Guerur, Morocco (on the west coast of Africa).

    To select the TAL abort mode, the crew must place the abort rotary switch in the TAL/AOA position and depress the abort push button before main engine cutoff. (Depressing it after main engine cutoff selects the AOA abort mode.) The TAL abort mode begins sending commands to steer the vehicle toward the plane of the landing site. It also rolls the vehicle heads up before main engine cutoff and sends commands to begin an orbital maneuvering system propellant dump (by burning the propellants through the orbital maneuvering system engines and the reaction control system engines). This dump is necessary to increase vehicle performance (by decreasing weight), to place the center of gravity in the proper place for vehicle control, and to decrease the vehicle's landing weight.

    TAL is handled like a nominal entry.


    An ATO is an abort mode used to boost the orbiter to a safe orbital altitude when performance has been lost and it is impossible to reach the planned orbital altitude. If a space shuttle main engine fails in a region that results in a main engine cutoff under speed, the Mission Control Center will determine that an abort mode is necessary and will inform the crew. The orbital maneuvering system engines would be used to place the orbiter in a circular orbit.


    The AOA abort mode is used in cases in which vehicle performance has been lost to such an extent that either it is impossible to achieve a viable orbit or not enough orbital maneuvering system propellant is available to accomplish the orbital maneuvering system thrusting maneuver to place the orbiter on orbit and the deorbit thrusting maneuver. In addition, an AOA is used in cases in which a major systems problem (cabin leak, loss of cooling) makes it necessary to land quickly. In the AOA abort mode, one orbital maneuvering system thrusting sequence is made to adjust the post-main engine cutoff orbit so a second orbital maneuvering system thrusting sequence will result in the vehicle deorbiting and landing at the AOA landing site (White Sands, N.M.; Edwards Air Force Base; or the Kennedy Space Center.. Thus, an AOA results in the orbiter circling the Earth once and landing approximately 90 minutes after lift-off.

    After the deorbit thrusting sequence has been executed, the flight crew flies to a landing at the planned site much as it would for a nominal entry.


    Contingency aborts are caused by loss of more than one main engine or failures in other systems. Loss of one main engine while another is stuck at a low thrust setting may also necessitate a contingency abort. Such an abort would maintain orbiter integrity for in-flight crew escape if a landing cannot be achieved at a suitable landing field.

    Contingency aborts due to system failures other than those involving the main engines would normally result in an intact recovery of vehicle and crew. Loss of more than one main engine may, depending on engine failure times, result in a safe runway landing. However, in most three-engine-out cases during ascent, the orbiter would have to be ditched. The in-flight crew escape system would be used before ditching the orbiter.


    Spacecraft recovery operations at the nominal end-of-mission landing site are supported by approximately 160 space shuttle Launch Operations team members. Ground team members wearing self-contained atmospheric protective ensemble suits that protect them from toxic chemicals approach the spacecraft as soon as it stops rolling. The ground team members take sensor measurements to ensure the atmosphere in the vicinity of the spacecraft is not explosive. In the event of propellant leaks, a wind machine truck carrying a large fan will be moved into the area to create a turbulent airflow that will break up gas concentrations and reduce the potential for an explosion.

    A ground support equipment air-conditioning purge unit is attached to the right-hand orbiter T-0 umbilical so cool air can be directed through the orbiter's aft fuselage, payload bay, forward fuselage, wings, vertical stabilizer, and orbital maneuvering system/reaction control system pods to dissipate the heat of entry.

    A second ground support equipment ground cooling unit is connected to the left-hand orbiter T-0 umbilical spacecraft Freon coolant loops to provide cooling for the flight crew and avionics during the postlanding and system checks. The spacecraft fuel cells remain powered up at this time. The flight crew will then exit the spacecraft, and a ground crew will power down the spacecraft.

    At the Kennedy Space Center. the orbiter and ground support equipment convoy move from the runway to the Orbiter Processing Facility.

    If the spacecraft lands at Edwards Air Force Base, the same procedures and ground support equipment are used as at the Kennedy Space Center after the orbiter has stopped on the runway. The orbiter and ground support equipment convoy move from the runway to the orbiter mate and demate facility at Edwards Air Force Base. After detailed inspection, the spacecraft is prepared to be ferried atop the shuttle carrier aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base to the Kennedy Space Center. For ferrying, a tail cone is installed over the aft section of the orbiter.

    In the event of a landing at an alternate site, a crew of about eight team members will move to the landing site to assist the astronaut crew in preparing the orbiter for loading aboard the shuttle carrier aircraft for transport back to the Kennedy Space Center. For landings outside the U.S., personnel at the contingency landing sites will be provided minimum training on safe handling of the orbiter with emphasis on crash rescue training, how to tow the orbiter to a safe area, and prevention of propellant conflagration.

    Upon its return to the Orbiter Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center. the orbiter is safed (ordnance devices safed), the payload (if any) is removed, and the orbiter payload bay is reconfigured from the previous mission for the next mission. Any required maintenance and inspections are also performed while the orbiter is in the OPF. A payload for the orbiter's next mission may be installed in the orbiter's payload bay in the OPF or may be installed in the payload bay when the orbiter is at the launch pad.

    The spacecraft is then towed to the Vehicle Assembly Building and mated to the external tank. The external tank and solid rocket boosters are stacked and mated on the mobile launcher platform while the orbiter is being refurbished. Space shuttle orbiter connections are made and the integrated vehicle is checked and ordnance is installed.

    The mobile launcher platform moves the entire space shuttle system on four crawlers to the launch pad, where connections are made and servicing and checkout activities begin. If the payload was not installed in the OPF, it will be installed at the launch pad followed by prelaunch activities.

    Space shuttle launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base will utilize the Vandenberg launch facility (SL6), which was built but never used for the manned orbital laboratory program. This facility was modified for space transportation system use.

    The runway at Vandenberg was strengthened and lengthened from 8,000 feet to 12,000 feet to accommodate the orbiter returning from space.

    When the orbiter lands at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the same procedures and ground support equipment and convoy are used as at Kennedy Space Center after the orbiter stops on the runway. The orbiter and ground support equipment are moved from the runway to the Orbiter Maintenance and Checkout Facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The orbiter processing procedures used at this facility are similar to those used at the OPF at the Kennedy Space Center.

    Space shuttle buildup at Vandenberg differs from that of the Kennedy Space Center in that the vehicle is integrated on the launch pad. The orbiter is towed overland from the Orbiter Maintenance and Checkout Facility at Vandenberg to launch facility SL6.

    SL6 includes the launch mount, access tower, mobile service tower, launch control tower, payload preparation room, payload changeout room, solid rocket booster refurbishment facility, solid rocket booster disassembly facility, and liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen storage tank facilities.

    The solid rocket boosters start the on-the-launch-pad buildup followed by the external tank. The orbiter is then mated to the external tank on the launch pad.

    The launch processing system at the launch pad is similar to the one used at the Kennedy Space Center.

    Kennedy Space Center Launch Operations has responsibility for all mating, prelaunch testing and launch control ground activities until the space shuttle vehicle clears the launch pad tower. Responsibility is then turned over to NASA's Johnson Space Center Mission Control Center-Houston. The Mission Control Center's responsibility includes ascent, on-orbit operations, entry, approach and landing until landing runout completion, at which time the orbiter is handed over to the postlanding operations at the landing site for turnaround and relaunch. At the launch site the solid rocket boosters and external tank are processed for launch and the solid rocket boosters are recycled for reuse.