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How big a thing was able to land or splash down? Was there ever anything bigger or heavier than the Space Shuttle? If no then whats next on the list? And secondary question: what is the maximal payload which can be returned from orbit (LEO if it matters).

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I guarantee it was one of the Space Shuttle missions. Manned missions and small sample return missions are about the only thing that has ever been returned from space, and the Space Shuttle is by far the biggest and heaviest of any of those objects. – PearsonArtPhoto Feb 9 at 21:44
up vote 13 down vote accepted

The heaviest space shuttle mission at landing (and an STS Orbiter is by far the heaviest craft to return from space intact) was STS-83 at 235,421 lbs (106,785 kg). This was a Spacelab mission which ended early due to fuel cell problems so it still had a lot of consumables onboard as well as the Spacelab.

Data from Appendix A of the ever-useful Space Shuttle Missions Summary.

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Didn't the shuttle ever return a (heavy) satellite to Earth, which I would think was one of the major new capabilities for which it was intended? Is it likely that it was done secretly on some of the military missions? – LocalFluff Feb 10 at 11:14
Landing 100+ tons on Earth is pretty impressive. I didn't know it had been done. It seems as if those wings weren't just dead weight. – LocalFluff Feb 10 at 11:30
STS-51A retrieved and returned 2 satellites whose apogee kick motors had malfunctioned; it weighed 207,506 lbs at landing. Appendix A lists landing weights for the classified missions (the only weights that are listed for these missions...), most are fairly light, implying that the missions deployed payloads. – Organic Marble Feb 10 at 13:16

The US space shuttle would be the biggest; the Soviet Buran spaceplane would be the runner-up. I think the shuttle could land just about as much payload as it could lift, about 25 tons. (maximum landing weight is 5 tons less than max takeoff weight, but that includes maneuvering fuel).

We don't have that capability any more, of course; I think the only thing we're routinely reentering these days is Soyuz, with three astronauts and a miniscule amount of cargo.

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Actually, SpaceX Dragon capsules routinely return from orbit as well, carrying a mix of trash and return-cargo from the International Space Station. – Kirkaiya Feb 10 at 0:47
@Kirkaiya Is this a typo or do they really return trash from the ISS? If so - why? Why don't they put it into a Progress capsule and let it burn? – Dmitri Pisarenko Feb 10 at 9:53
Space on the ISS is limited @DmitriPisarenko, if I were an astronaut I'd take any opportunity to get rid of waste. – GdD Feb 10 at 10:22
If the dragon capsule burns up with trash inside it's not going to be human rated anytime soon @MSalters. A heavy capsule is a better test than an empty one. – GdD Feb 10 at 10:47
@Dmitri Pisarenko It's not a typo. The ISS astronauts/cosmonauts sometimes put trash into the Dragon capsules to get rid of it. I assume this is because there are not enough Progress capsules going up to get rid of all the trash - a fair portion of the ISS up-mass is carried by Dragon and Cygnus. CRS-6, for example, included trash as part of it's down-mass. – Kirkaiya Feb 10 at 22:28

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