The Giant, Amazing Machines NASA Built for the Shuttle
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The Giant, Amazing Machines NASA Built for the Shuttle

[ ♪ Intro ] The Space Shuttle may have been out of commission
for nearly a decade now. But it’s still arguably one of humanity’s
greatest achievements. Unlike the rockets and capsules we use today,
the shuttle was ideal for short trips to space. You could launch into orbit, stay there for
a couple of weeks to do what you needed to do, then come home and touch down on a runway
like it was just another transatlantic flight. Thanks to the shuttle, we were able to repair
the Hubble Space Telescope multiple times and build the International Space Station. Exploration today would be vastly different
without it. But no matter how it seems when you look back
on the pictures and videos, that degree of innovation didn’t come easily. It took more than a decade to design and build
the shuttle, and the thing was so complicated that engineers had to create gigantic, entirely new machines just to make the system work. The basic idea behind the shuttle was simple
enough, at least in theory. It would launch from a pad in Florida like
a regular rocket and spend a week or two in space. Then, when it was time to come home, the crew
would slow it down so it fell back to Earth. Once the shuttle made it into the atmosphere,
it would fly like a plane, touching down on a runway, usually in Florida, but often in California, too. Maybe you’ve spotted the first logistical
problem here: If you land a shuttle in California, you somehow need to get it back to the launchpad
on the other side of the country for its next mission. Sure, the orbiters could fly a lot like a
plane when they landed, but they weren’t designed to actually be a plane. And they were way too big to fit inside even
the biggest cargo jets. So NASA decided to stick them on top of a
plane instead. Or rather, one of two different planes, both
modified so they could carry the shuttle on their backs like some kind of weird speedy
flying turtle. Modifying the planes was pretty straightforward;
they just had to add a docking system to the roof. But getting the shuttle into position on top
of the plane, and then taking it back off, was another story. For that, engineers invented the mate-demate
device, or MDD. NASA built a few of them, and they were designed
to lift the shuttle in a way that would keep it safe and stable while its carrier plane was either put into position under it or moved out of its way. Which was not exactly easy to do when the
shuttle in question weighed about 100,000 kilograms. The MDD was a bit like an enormous, stationary
double crane. It had two towers, about 30 meters tall, connected to a big horizontal beam that was attached to the shuttle to lift it. Kind of hilariously, the first time NASA used
an MDD to try to put a shuttle on its carrier plane, they realized the orbiter didn’t fit, and they had to adjust some of the attachment points on the plane. Because, you know, it’s not like they use
blueprints and measurements for this kind of thing. But hey, at least they didn’t drop the shuttle
while they were waiting. Once the shuttle made it to the launch site, it was set up on another giant machine:
the mobile launch platform. The platform wasn’t built specifically for
the shuttle program, it had been used since the Apollo days. But it did need to be modified to work for
the shuttles. One major change engineers made was switching
out the umbilical towers that had been used to hold the Saturn V, that’s the rocket
used for Apollo launches, until it was time for launch. Instead, the shuttle used two
tail service masts, small structures on either side of the tail that reached up to the bottoms of the wings. The masts were set up to deliver things like
fuel and power to the shuttle, while venting exhaust. According to NASA’s original plan, those changes should have been enough to accommodate the new spacecraft. But then the first shuttle mission, STS-1,
was launched. And engineers realized they had a problem: the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were too loud. Sound carries energy, and when there’s enough
of it, it exerts a force you can feel. In the case of the shuttle, the sound was
so loud that it damaged some of the thermal tiles on the outside of the orbiter, the ones that were supposed to protect it from burning up on its way back through the atmosphere. Thankfully, the orbiter made it back to the
ground safely at the end of the mission. But if they wanted to keep reusing the shuttles, NASA knew they had to do more to protect them from the sound of their own launch. So before the next mission, STS-2, they installed the sound suppression water system on the mobile launch platform. Water is much denser than air, and when sound
travels through water, it loses much more energy to the molecules it vibrates along the way. So, the idea was that a rush of water could
dampen the sound and vibrations from the launch, protecting the shuttle from damage. And I really do mean a rush. Like, have you ever seen water gushing out
of a fire hydrant at full blast? This thing made that look like the tiniest
raindrop. In just 41 seconds, it spewed out 1.3 million
liters of water. And it worked! We actually still use water sound suppression
systems today, for rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The idea might sound kind of crude, but it’s
incredibly effective. So, yeah, the shuttles are gone for good,
which is a bummer. But they gave us totally new ways to explore
space, and the machines we built to support their complexity continue to shape human spaceflight today. If you want to learn about technology that
revolutionized the space industry, you can watch our episode about how computers changed space exploration forever. And as always, thanks for watching this episode
of SciShow Space! [ ♪ Outro ]


  • Raymond K Petry

    "usually in Florida" [01:15]—but NASA says, "From the first shuttle mission in 1981, the primary landing site was Edwards Air Force Base"…

  • Alejandro Pacheco

    The STS was too complicated and too expensive to be useful, it was like the Bugatti of space. Very impressive but not very practical. I still love it.

  • WulfgarOpenthroat

    Would be interesting to see a video on all the issues the space shuttle had; not the well known ones like the tiles breaking, but the level of refurbushment and rebuilding they needed per launch, meaning they never came close to delivering their promised launch costs or turnaround times.
    The shuttle offered some very useful and unique capabilities, but it also had a lot of drawbacks; I imagine they're much of the reason the shuttles were retired and a new launch system put into development instead of just building modernized shuttles(including it being limited to only being able to reach low earth orbit).

  • The Learning Patch

    My 6 year old has been obsessed with rockets and space shuttles since she was 1.5 years old. We love learning about these amazing machines. My husband and I LOVED seeing the shuttle, Discovery, piggy-back a ride to his new home at the Udvar Hazy Center in Washington DC. Thanks for posting this!

  • Richard Jorissen

    Saturn 5 also used water suppression system. Did they turn it off the first time they used the shuttle or did they upgrade it?

    Care to explain scishow?

  • sebastian cuello

    The shuttle represents Nasa’s failure of sending astronauts beyond low earth orbit. Sure amazing engineering to build it, but nonetheless represents Nasa’s failure.

  • tinkmarshino

    "it's not like they used blueprints or measurements or anything like that" You have to stop that!!! I almost hurt myself falling off of my chair laughing… oh my gosh.. such a government project! Thanks as always Scishow..

  • aegideus

    Did anyone else crack up at the picture of the shuttle strapped to the top of the transport jet? I don't know why, but seeing a spaceship strapped to the roof of a plane like a sofa to the roof of a car just looks super comical.

  • SudoBurger

    They used 1.3 MILLION liters of water… per launch… just to make the launches quieter??

    That seems like a very sound design. :^)

  • East Darza

    Earth is flat, not round brainwashed kids. Wake up. Nasa is a scam and the sky is the limit. If you want to the know the truth. Try to sneak onto antartica without getting caught and move straight. Youll see the moon up close and youll be shocked. Youll start believing. Nasa covers up the existence of god. Nasa is controlled by iblis/satan. Wake up please 🙏🏾.

  • Frank Kelley

    That was back when America could put a man into space, now we beg rides from Russians. I remember those heady days, but I'm old.

  • joeylantis22

    Wow the Shuttle compared to Falcon 9… looks like we are moving backwards in technology instead of forwards :/ I’d like to see Elon musk use his rocket again and again, OH WAIT IMPOSSIBLE. the shuttle could come back and be used many times with little maintenance. RIP shuttle

  • Jackson Porter

    I’m so hyped for BFR! It’ll be like the space shuttle except more so, if we have the will to utilizes it’s capabilities.

  • Rue Ryuzaki

    About the sound suppression water system. The explanation was clear on how it should work, and it clearly does work otherwise it would be discontinued already.
    My question come into play with the notion of sound travelling through water reaching further when compared to air. Does this mean that sound travels further in water, while also being dampened more because it is in water? How do these two phenomenons relate to each other? How can it be that sound travels further in water, but also is dampened by it, when compared to air? Has it something to do with the fact that the sound suppression water system uses water jets/spays instead of a bath of some kind? Or is this just some quirk of nature and that's just the way it is?
    Whales and dolphins communicate over vast distances through the use of sonar (sound) and this works (partly) because of the fact that water can propagate sound more easily than air. But when water is used for the shuttle launch, it switches sides and decides it propagates sound less effective than air?
    Why? How? Please help! My brain is shorting out on this!

  • cpt nordbart

    The shuttles were actually a failure.
    They were expecting them to a cost-effective and easy way to get cargo into space.
    This was never the case. After a successful mission a space shuttle had to be extensively maintained to be ready for another mission.
    It's impressive. But so was the Concorde.

  • Scott Taylor

    The last comment "The shuttle's shaped space exploration/things to come" not true. Usually when you mothball a fleet of vessels, it means it's being replaced with something newer/better. What if anything has NASA replaced it with?….NOTHING. What a tremendous waste. NASA should reinstate it's use and get back 'in the game' or risk being left behind by other countries with aspirations of manned space flight ie, India, Saudi's or China

  • Admiral Percy

    STS-1 had water sound suppression. At the 52 minute mark of this video of its launch, control says they've armed the water sound suppression system.

  • SRFriso94

    It's always such a mixed bag to think back to the Space Shuttle program. It was beautiful, extremely powerful, and surprsingly elegant. But at the same time, it was also hideously expensive, massively inefficient, and wildly dangerous. It taught us valuable lessons, but in the end, it's probably for the best that it's that NASA shut the program down.

  • Yuri Castaldo

    Why not using a system like the one on Baykonur space launch pad? Isn't it less expensive ( in many ways ), much easier to deal with and also build?

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