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Did NASA's Space Shuttles go into deep space?

Did NASA's Space Shuttles go into deep space? 

It’s probably best to start with definitions since many of these terms are somewhat ambiguous.

LEO (Low Earth Orbit) = approximately 250 miles above the earth’s surface

MEO (Medium Earth Orbit) = approximately 1000 - 20,000 miles up

GEO (Geosynchronous Orbit) = approx. 22,000 miles up - with an orbital period that matches the earth’s rotational speed - therefore, objects in this orbit appear stationary above a spot on earth

HEO (Highly Elliptical Orbit) = elliptical Earth orbit with the perigee approx. 200 miles up, and the apogee many tens of thousands of miles up

Deep Space = very ambiguous term - can be used to describe cis-lunar space, or can be used to described space between solar systems (i.e. beyond the Oort Cloud)

With those definitions in mind:

The Space Shuttle and all human space missions (except Apollo 10-17 & 9) flew in LEO (or were sub-orbital flights like Mercury 3 & 4, along with the recent Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights).

If you accept cis-lunar space as “deep space”, then the only manned missions to fly in this region were Apollo 8 through 17(except Apollo 9).  

The only deep space, spacewalks performed to date, were on Apollo 15, 16 and 17 (during the return trip to earth in cis-lunar space).

There are many questions about how far NASA space shuttles ventured into our solar system but in fact, when they took off they only went up a little bit of a distance and then stayed with the nurse gravity to orbit around the earth in a very controlled manner controlled of course referring to being a constant freefall an epic battle of gravity and pull. 

When we sent astronauts to the moon our crafts had to leave the local space system of earth and venture into deep space. 

It was a complicated and coordinated effort of advanced mathematics and lunar planning that included both NASA scientists, mathematicians, and the brilliant minds at Grumman Laboratories based out in eastern Long Island. 

However, the space shuttle did not engage in missions anywhere near that complexity. 

When the space shuttle is launched it is flung up to a distance that is not great enough to allow it to fly in deep space but to stay within the pull of earth's gravity, unlike our Apollo missions which went into deep space and outside of the earth's gravitational hold. (this is not true - the earth’s gravitational field is what holds the moon in orbit around the earth - and the moon’s gravitational field is what causes tides on earth.  

Gravitational forces are a function of mass and distance - the greater the mass and the shorter the distance, the greater the acceleration (i.e. force) of gravity.

When astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year in space in the Space Station he did not enter deep space. 

The ISS (International Space Station) flies in low earth orbit (approx. 250 miles from the Earth’s surface, with an orbital period of around 90 minutes). The space shuttle was really built to be a heavy lift spacecraft to take cargo to low earth orbit. It was not designed to travel beyond LEO. 

The space shuttle does not have the capabilities boosters or resources to support astronaut life for an extended mission into deep space. 

The spacecraft and launch rocket being designed by SpaceX for lunar landings will be nothing like the space shuttles that flew for NASA for decades. Instead, it is envisioned to be similar to the Saturn V rocket + Apollo capsule + lunar lander.   

The complicated and precise work that goes into deep space travel includes sophisticated (there is no AI or “machine learning” required for calculating flight paths to the moon - the equations derived from Sir Isaac Newton’s work in the early 17th century is all that’s needed) rely upon mountains of mathematical questions to deal with such an unstable environment. 

As space becomes the next area to be fought over by the leading global powers there will be a race in the field of intelligent space navigation. 

To actually navigate deep space it’s so much more complicated than to send simple missions into a gravitational pull around the Earth as we did with the Space Shuttle.

Edited by NASA Astronaut JD Wetherbee

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