As the title states, if a space shuttle 2.0 were to be built with current technology, in which ways or areas might it be superior to the original space shuttle?

Which components are most ripe for improvement using current technology and how big would be the gained advantage by this improvement?

Basics requirements:

  • vertical launch, horizontal landing orbiter
  • ability to lift at least 25 tons to LEO
  • supports a maximum of 7 crew members for at least 14 days

Goal of the question: Exercise to illustrate advancements in spaceflight technologies in the last several decades.

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    $\begingroup$ The most serious drawbacks of the Shuttle design were due to political rather than technological constraints, and those have gotten worse faster than rocket technology has improved. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 30, 2015 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ Skylon with an air breathing engine to get rid of most of the oxygen tanks would be one concept. After 30 years they say they have made great progress with the hardest part, the cooling system, and will build an engine prototype. The engine might have military use, so it could actually come true. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 8:38
  • $\begingroup$ How much do you care about launch costs and reusabilty of components other than the orbiter? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ I suggest the following improvements: Putting the shuttle on top of the rocket instead of on its side. Giving it a launch escape system. Making it able to fly uncrewed, like the Russian Buran could and did. Separating cargo launches from crewed launches, just like busses and trucks are separated on the ground. Realizing that rockets should land as they start, like helicopters do, and decide not to build a shuttle at all. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 7:20
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    $\begingroup$ @ikrase The point is to avoid the mass of wings and undercarriage $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 10:18

5 Answers 5


This could go many ways, depending on whether you mean a clean sheet design or incremental updates to STS. I'll assume the latter, in a parallel universe where the STS-107 accident never happened and the program continued on and actually did upgrades.

We can look at what was planned for STS:

  • Improved engines: health monitoring, new controller, new nozzle and combustion chamber design
  • Electric power for the hydraulic pumps instead of toxic and dangerous hydrazine APUs
  • New avionics and cockpit controls & displays
  • Blowdown-type thrust vector control system for the SRBs instead of toxic and dangerous hydrazine APUs.

Other, more expensive and/or speculative updates

  • Liquid fueled fully reusable flyback boosters enter image description here
  • Metallic or otherwise hardened Thermal Protection System
  • Operational improvements to reduce cost - reflying crews as a unit to reduce training, for example
  • Forward-to-aft Reaction Control System interconnect
  • Revisit and fully implement the Extended Duration Orbiter project (cryo pallets, Orbital Maneuvering System kits, regenerative CO2 removal, new toilet)
  • Add Shuttle-C-like vehicle as an option for heavy lift missions where crew is not required
  • Crew escape system - via separable crew module?

The second link leads to an entire book titled Upgrading the Space Shuttle which may be of interest. I have only pulled a few items from it.

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    $\begingroup$ Say, that National Academies Press site is a treasure trove. I wasn't aware of it :) $\endgroup$
    – kim holder
    Commented Sep 30, 2015 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ While this is very interessting stuff (especialy the booster thing) i was more thinking about building a new Shuttle. Sorry for the misunderstanding. Question is edited. $\endgroup$
    – m.fuss
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 8:26
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I acknowledged in my first line that you might have meant a clean sheet design. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ Could you say what "Forward-to-aft Reaction Control System interconnect" means? Or what was wrong about original Shuttle RCS? $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ Sure. The shuttle had basically 3 independent MMH / nitrogen tetroxide prop systems: forward RCS, aft RCS, and the OMS. The aft RCS and OMS could be interconnected and crossfed to each other which added flexibilty (for example, if a pressurant tank leaked out on one system, you could feed from the other system. But the forward system was completely isolated from the other 2 systems, so if it ran low on prop or had failures, you had fewer options to deal with them. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 0:15

Probably you'd have a much smaller wing.

The shuttle that was built had as a requirement the ability to launch into polar orbit from Vandenburg in California, do something sneaky (possibly even steal someone else's satellite) and then have the cross range to glide with a full payload bay against the earth's rotation far enough to land back the west coast the "first time around" despite the earth having rotated underneath it. By having this, the shuttle supposedly fulfilled a military mission requirement as well as a purely scientific one, with the idea being that this would help secure funding.

This capability was never used. But it meant that every flight that ever flew, carried the mass of a far larger wing than was actually needed for the missions that flew.

And even though the shuttle was never used in any militarily significant way, it's existence seemed to inspire the opposition to think they needed one, too.


The original goal of the shuttle was to have a reusable and therefore cheap launch system. (They failed at the 'cheap' part.) Currently SpaceX with their reusable rockets and their Starship they are developing are far on the way of making that a reality. Their rockets land vertically instead of horizontally, which turns out to be better because you don't need to carry the wings and undercarriage with you. (And the Starship still has small wings despite not landing horizontally.) If you are asking about recent spaceflight advances this is definitely where you should look.

If SpaceX's Starship fits what you are looking for, they aim to get these improvements over existing space vehicles:

  • Much cheaper to launch because the whole vehicle is reusable instead of thrown away after launch. Just refuel and go.
  • Capable of taking 100 people or so to space per launch
  • Not limited to LEO but can go anywhere in the solar system by refueling the Spaceship in Earth orbit
  • Can use fuel produced on Mars for the return journey
  • $\begingroup$ @ downvoter, please tell us what you think is wrong with this answer $\endgroup$
    – JanKanis
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ This answer does not answer the question. It's not being asked if a shuttle architecture makes sense financially or practically, but instead, how a shuttle with modern components that fills the "basic requirements" listed in the question would look. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Dragongeek I took the OP's question as asking about advancements in space-shuttle-like vehicles, while excluding simple capsule type spacecraft. Powered vertical landing is such an advancement. If my reading of the question is correct the OP may have excluded that unintentionally. If the OP (or someone else reading this question) wasn't aware of the developments around SpaceX's Starship they would certainly like to know. But it depends on what the OP actually means with the question. $\endgroup$
    – JanKanis
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ Having a quick look at the question's edit history seems to support my interpretation. $\endgroup$
    – JanKanis
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ The question was asked a few months before SpaceX's first successful landing of a booster, they now operationally vertically land and reuse their boosters. The "horizontal landing orbiter" requirement should probably be removed, since a state of the art Shuttle replacement quite plausibly wouldn't drag wings and runway landing gear to orbit...it's like asking for a "state of the art" passenger airliner while requiring answers to be tail-dragging biplanes because that's what the Goliath had. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 26, 2020 at 16:03

NONE of the technological constraints of the shuttle are "State of the art" just integrated in such a way they're vastly complicated to maintain. But some technical features

  1. modern computers instead of the AP101
  2. Update avionics (automated landing)
  3. Aluminum Oxynitride windows
  4. Metallic/composite as opposed to ceramic heat shield

A shuttle 2.0 was actually being planned but got canceled due to the typical cost and time overruns. It is was the X-33 Venture Star. Check it out. If you’re talking a more shuttle like vehicle than a replacement then I have some ideas for that. I would say it would most definitely run off of methane or hydrogen. The boosters would probably be liquid fueled and more reusable. The ET would also be reusable as those just got thrown away. They would also for sure have a safer ejection system.


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