While browsing concepts of Space Station Freedom and other '80s NASA concepts (I love concept art), I noticed that there are some interesting differences in how the Shuttle was intended to dock with a station than in real life. The concepts, noticeably

this concept


this one have no real docking port inside the Shuttle. In fact, the docking adapter is on the station instead of inside the shuttle. real adapter

Why would NASA not choose to go with their conceptual design when building the ISS, and how would it have worked? Surely keeping the adapter on the station would increase payload mass/volume, which is pretty critical when building a station.

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    $\begingroup$ Having the docking adapter on the station in that position means you have to maneuver the docking adapter in close proximity to the aft bulkhead of the cabin. One mistake means a dent or breach in the cabin. Having the docking adapter in the cargo bay means more clearance to the cabin, and a mistake will result in hard contact between the docking adapter ring and its counterpart on the station, both of which are built to handle that. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ Concept art should almost never be taken as a canonical design. It is almost always wrong to some extent. $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ Those pictures don't seem to show the shuttle docked at the ISS, just nearby to it, with attaching the two together left as an exercise for the reader. $\endgroup$
    – djr
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ FWIW the James Bond film Moonraker (not known for its technical accuracy) showed the Orbiter docking with the space station using the crew entry hatch, though they didn't go into detail of how that was supposed to work. $\endgroup$
    – GordonD
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ Armageddon dual Shuttle docking was pretty fun too! :P $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 18:17

3 Answers 3


This diagram from 1973 (shortly after the contract was awarded to Rockwell) shows that the external docking adapter was already planned. I suspect those concept art photos are playing fast and loose with reality.

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From Jenkins "Space Shuttle", 1992 edition.


All docking ports require a part both on the passive spacecraft (in this case the space station) and a part on the active spacecraft (in this case the shuttle). If I had to guess, the concept art used a reference photograph of the space shuttles, which at the time did not have docking adapters installed.

Here you can see Challenger in orbit in 1983

This image is a little small, but you can see that there is no docking port on the spacecraft. The docking adapters were only installed for the first Shuttle-Mir missions, and later found use on the International Space Station.


Ooh, this is old.

I do feel the answers need a little addition though:

Why would NASA not choose to go with their conceptual design when building the ISS,

See below, but TL;DR: Russia coming on board and Mir-Shuttle docking experience killed off the design.

and how would it have worked?

See below. NASA patented a concept of its operation.

The two illustrations depict Space Station Freedom with very real concept docking adapters, designed to dock the Space Shuttle with SSF. This was the official NASA design for around 4 years.

(It is not the concept artists going off doing their own thing)

Historically, previously, and all along, the Space Shuttle Orbiter had designs and concepts for docking with space stations. And as seen above in another answer, early on they had a docking module in the front part of the payload bay.

A variation of this had the docking tunnel curving into the as designed airlock in the cabin.

Other concepts included docking in the nose cone, above the nose cone, in front of the cockpit, and above the cabin.

These worked with the assumption that the space station would have and/or a telescopic pressurized docking tunnel (which dated back to the 1960s design work for a space station).

There was also a smart tunnel that was composed of a shortened Spacehab-like compartment on the end of a flexible pressurized tunnel.

This was part of the space station and the Spacehab-like part had a hatch adapter that mated with the Orbiter cabin airlock. The trunnion and keel pins of the Spacehab-like part secured it to the Orbiter payload bay.

Many illustrations therefore showed the simplest and earliest docking systems: telescopic pressurized docking tunnel, that mated with an Orbiter Docking module.

But in the late 1980s a design became quite secure: This was based off the already decided unpressurized berthing adapter that was going to be an early building block of the SSF.

enter image description here

That was a lattice framework that had grapple fixtures for the Orbiter to use its arm to berth itself with the SSF and the lower half had trunnions and keel pins that lined up with the forward section of the Orbiters payload bay.

To make it a pressurized docking adapter, a docking tunnel was added with an airlock/hatch that was placed at the end of it within the trunnion/keel pin framework. The Orbiter cabin airlock hatch would be modified to mate with this hatch.

The other end, affixed to the space station, ended with a cone, that later had it canted to one side, off the central pressurized module axis, accommodating the following system to its side.

That side then featured a retractable vehicle and station coupling system.

This was extended to meet and attach to the corresponding coupler that was attached to the right side of the Orbiter payload bay.

Once attached and any movement having dissipated the extended system retracted bringing the station and the Orbiter together for a hard dock. At this time the docking hatch adapter would have been brought to meet the Orbiter airlock hatch and they would mate, forming a pressurized docking tunnel through to the space station.

This is the reason given for not having the docking system in the payload bay:

Since the mechanism must be sized to allow through passage of personnel and cargo, the associated large diameter and centerline mounting requires considerable support structure and a heavier structure than would normally be desired from a loads and dynamics standpoint. Further, since the combination structure is fixed in the payload bay during the shuttle’s space mission, the net usable payload mass and volume capacity of the orbiter is severely restricted.

The Orbiter based coupling mechanism is actually based on the ASTP/APAS docking ring, only much smaller with 4 petals instead of 3, with linear attenuator actuator devices that attenuate and limit impact loading to an acceptable level or to realign the spacecraft for final docking and tunnel interconnection.

enter image description here

These are frames from Hey! What's Space Station Freedom? - 1992 NASA Documentary

Here you can see the retraction coupling system is extended, ready to receive and couple with the Orbiter.

Note that the right hand docking system is the Primary docking adapter, and the Orbiter would approach tail down.

The left hand docking system is the Backup docking adapter, and the Orbiter would approach tail up, nose down.

NASA patented this docking adapter in 1988 and it became commonly seen after that in much of their literature regarding Space Station Freedom.

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NASA artwork. 1992.

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And this became the official docking system between the Orbiter and Space Station Freedom seen in NASA illustrations, generally between 1988 and 1992 when it was suddenly dropped.

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Incidentally, when not docking, berthing could also be used, utilising the Orbiters SSRMS arm to grapple the now named-berthing adapter and bring the Orbiter in to the docking position.

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Why was it dropped?


the U.S. chose to buy docking hardware from the Russians. The Russian docking mechanism, the APAS, is a derivative of the Apollo/Soyuz design to which the Russians had evolved by the mid 1980s.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, NASA had a docking mechanism design, but in the early 1990s, it was decided that NASA and the Russians would cooperate to build the ISS.

To do this, NASA began procuring Russian hardware and abandoned its formal docking mechanism design work.

Basically the success of the Mir-Shuttle mission partnership and the political atmosphere at the time caused this docking mechanism to be dropped. In its place was a much simpler system, based on APAS-89 and the experience on using it to dock Orbiter with Mir.

When the berthing/docking adapter was dropped, the PMA appeared in subsequent artwork and design studies:

enter image description here


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    $\begingroup$ excellent addition to the site. I hope the OP sees it $\endgroup$
    – Erin Anne
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 22:54

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