Space shuttle re-entry

Posted on 2011-05-13
Last Modified: 2012-06-21
Hi Experts,

Why does the space shuttle slam into the atmosphere in a blaze of thermal fury in order to slow from orbital to landing speed. If it entered the atmosphere in a more controlled manner and set itself the task of loosing 1mph per second re-entry would be as gentle as a car rolling to a halt and no thermal stress. It would of course take 5 hours but this would be worth it in order to create a safer method of re-entry.
Question by:DColin
    LVL 84

    Expert Comment

    after loosing 1mph per second for a while it would drop into a lower orbit with denser atmosphere and would not be able to avoid increased friction and thermal fury.

    Author Comment


    As the air density increases would this not allow the shuttle to then fly/glide/skip rather than plunge.
    LVL 84

    Expert Comment

    flying or plunging through dense enough air at high enough speeds still generates thermal fury
    LVL 84

    Accepted Solution

    here is an analysis of the lift to drag ratio needed for a shallow glide reentrys
    But at hypersonic speeds, high lift/drag shapes cause more thermal stress because the shock wave stays closer to the vehicle.
    LVL 32

    Expert Comment

    Wouldn't that be something like sticking your hand in a 450F oven for 10 seconds versus sticking it in 200F for 15 minutes?  In the first situation, the differential is greater, but there is enough insulation (hair, air, skin & tissue mass) to avoid burns.  In the second situation, longer exposure will cook the contents, even if the outer temp would be X degrees cooler.

    OSHA heat stress exposure for an 8-hour shift is something like 90F, with less than 25% work-to-rest time (light work, not hard labor), assuming prior acclimation.

    In the the giant crystal caves in Mexico, the temps are around 135-150F.  Exposure for the scientific crews is 20-30 minutes with cooling apparatus before risk of cardiac arrest.  Without cooling, death is only a few minutes away.  At 100% humidity, perspiration can't evaporate to cool.

    I think a 5-hour re-entry would not be survivable.

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