Why has the Space shuttle never gone beyond Earth orbit?

The shuttle program is coming to an end. There have been missions lasting as long as 17 days, but not of the nearly 130 missions has gone beyond Earth orbit. What has limited the range, if it is limited, (ie, back to the Moon)? Couldn't we have used it to take materials to the Moon for a true space station there, one that would be permanent, and useful for future operations?


It has an entire payload bay, at least part of which could carry plenty of fuel, it's far larger than the Apollo capsules that did go, and the cost of a free return trajectory is (or should be) unrelated to the vehicles size. What am I missing?

12 Answers

  • DrDave
    Lv 7
    1 decade ago
    Best Answer

    It wasnt designed to. It uses most of its fuel just to get up in orbit. What fuel is left is simply to move it in a particular position and to move it back into a reentry position.

  • Amy
    Lv 4
    4 years ago

    Whoa, there. No mass firings are scheduled. The shuttle is being retired after two more missions, but it is not usable for travel to the moon or to Mars, and it never was. It was designed strictly as an orbiter. NASA is working on a new launch vehicle that may include some parts from the shuttle, and there are other projects under development. The lunar landers were designed and built over forty years ago, before the shuttle program began. They were launched from Florida by the monster Saturn-5 rockets, which took them clear into orbit around the Moon. They were released from the orbiter and descended to the lunar surface with braking by rockets. When it was time for the astronauts to leave, the smaller landers were fired into space by rockets and returned to the earth. You should visit NASA's website. They have thousands of photos and videos of the space program.

  • 1 decade ago

    The same reason your car has never driven across the Atlantic ocean. It wasn't designed to do so.

    The shuttle uses nearly all its fuel to get to low Earth orbit. That is as far as it was ever intended to go. It cannot go any further without additional fuel and serious re-working. It certainly cannot reach the Moon. To get to orbit it has to reach 17,500mph, and it takes all the fuel in the tank, both solid rocket boosters and a little extra manoeuvring fuel to achieve that. To get to the Moon it would need to reach 25,000mph, and it has no fuel left to add that extra speed.

    >>It has an entire payload bay, at least part of which could carry plenty of fuel,<<

    Could it? Are you sure of that? Can the maximum load of the payload bay contain enough fuel to accelerate the orbiter to a translunar trajectory? The main engines are the only ones with enough power to even consider using for this extra push, which means you have to use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Then you have to find some way to seamlessly switch the supply to the engines from the external tank to the payload tank, since the main engines are not designed to restart in space. Once they shut down that's it. They are only re-usable because they get completely stripped down and rebuilt once the shuttle gets back to Earth.

    >>it's far larger than the Apollo capsules that did go,<<

    Thus it requires far more fuel to get it up to the right speed.

    >>and the cost of a free return trajectory is (or should be) unrelated to the vehicles size. What am I missing?<<

    The fact that the shuttle simply IS NOT DESIGNED to operate the way you suggest. Even if you could somehow give it enough fuel to go to the Moon on a free-return trajectory, what use is that? One loop around the Moon and back? Useless. You need to go into orbit to do any worthwhile work that would warrant sending men up there, which needs even more fuel. And then, once you've used yet more fuel to get out of lunar orbit and back to Earth, you have the problem of re-entry. The shuttle thermal protection system is designed to cope with the temperatures of re-entry from orbit, i.e. hitting the air at 17,500mph. On a free-return trajectory the shuttle would hit the atmosphere at 25,000mph. Not only would the heat shield fail, the structure of the vehicle would not be able to handle those stresses and the whole thing would simply disintegrate.

    The shuttle simply cannot go to the Moon without extensive and expensive modifications. NASA did a study on this some time ago and concluded it was cheaper to design and build a proper lunar spacecraft than modify the shuttle for it.

  • 1 decade ago

    The solid rocket boosters and the main engines are only used to get to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The tank is jettisoned once the orbiter reaches orbit and the main engines are shut down. At that point the only rockets and fuel left on board are those in the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS). The total delta-V available is about 300 m/s.

    Once you are in LEO the next major travel point is a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). This requires a further 2500 m/s of delta-V. Clearly the Shuttle OMS does not have the capability of boosting the craft to GTO. However, the Shuttle can haul about 24 tons of payload to LEO (along with the 100 ton mass of the orbiter itself) and this payload can be an interplanetary spacecraft attached to an upper stage rocket (such as the Galileo and Magellan missions).

    The Saturn V lifted about 120 tons to LEO, most of which was the S-IVb upper stage which went on to boost the command and service modules into a lunar transfer orbit. The CSM weighed about 30 tons, nearly 20 tons of which was fuel for the service module.

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  • 1 decade ago

    Not designed for it, not equipped for it, not enough fuel, can't reenter from anything faster than low orbit speed.

    Look at how much fuel was required to launch the Apollo CSM in to a translunar trajectory. Compare the mass of the Apollo CSM with the mass of a Shuttle orbiter. Compare the size of a Saturn V third stage with the Shuttle payload bay. Do you see the problem?

    What are you missing? Just about everything.

  • 1 decade ago

    The space shuttle was never designed to travel beyond Earth orbit. The main reason it couldn't be used for extended missions, like to the moon, is it can't carry enough fuel for such missions.

  • 1 decade ago

    As the others have said, it is mostly because of the fact that there would not be enough fuel to leave earth's orbit and then return. Additionally, any manned shuttle that leaves earth's orbit would be exposed to cosmic radiation for more protracted periods of time, and while this is likely to be dangerous for the astronauts on board, it is not yet known how dangerous it would be.

    Source(s): Wikipedia
  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    Not only the fuel, or lack of it, it was only designed to re enter up to a certain speed. These speeds you get from low earth orbit. Apollo re entered a lot faster, and used a different method to dissipate heat.

    Unless it was redesigned. Low orbit was its only remit.

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    why has a submarine never gone to Salt Lake city? why has a helicopter never surveyed the bottem of the Atlantic ocean? Why dont we use Single engine cessnas to put satelllites in orbit?

    its called "design"

    if we took the materials to the moon, it wouldnt be a space station, would it... it would be a moon base.

  • 1 decade ago

    If the shuttle flew out too far, it will not be able to come back. It carried enough fuel for the mission designed.

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