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In the excitement about SpaceX's Falcon recovery and relaunch development program, it's often forgotten in articles like this one that reusable spacecraft were in regular use far back in the 20th century:

SES this week hopes to see its SES-10 communications satellite become the first payload delivered to orbit by a rocket booster that has already completed an orbital launch.

If we specify that "rocket booster" means, precisely, all the parts of the rocket which are involved in providing propellant and thrust at liftoff, then this would seem to be correct.

If we relax our definition a bit to mean something like any airframe with engines which is providing thrust at liftoff, then STS-2 would be the historic flight; Columbia carried a number of scientific experiments on its second orbital mission.

If delivering payload to orbit and leaving it there is a requirement, then some other shuttle flight would qualify.

Since the Shuttle external tanks were not reused, one could argue that none of the shuttle flights qualify, though I consider it disingenuous to consider the ET a dealbreaker while ignoring the Falcon 9 second stage entirely.

That leaves the shuttle SRBs, which could reasonably be argued to be part of "the rocket booster" in a way that the ET is not. The SRBs, however, were also recovered and rebuilt after launch.

Thus, my question is: what was the first shuttle flight in which both the orbiter and the SRB casings were re-used hardware?

For purposes of the question, the SRB wouldn't have to be 100% reused (if, say, nose cones were never reflown) as long as a large majority, say 75% of it was.

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  • $\begingroup$ Would it be worth rewording the title to clarify that this is Shuttle-specific? $\endgroup$ – DylanSp Mar 29 '17 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ Current title is optimized for snarkiness. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Mar 29 '17 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ I look forward to an answer to this question in hopes of it citing a good reference to SRB case segment history. I know only of a history of the case segments flown on STS-135. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Mar 29 '17 at 21:39
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    $\begingroup$ @organicmarble Dammit, I was counting on you to have the answer for this one. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Mar 29 '17 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ 75% parts reused. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Mar 30 '17 at 12:06
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There is two answers to this question depending on the criteria. If the criteria is first flight of a segment previously used, then the first actual "used" segment to fly was on STS-2 with the mid center segment on both the RH and LH booster from (DM-2) Development Motor 2. Interestingly, the blow-by referred to on STS-2 occurred between this used segment and the new aft segment. The first previously flown segment to make its second flight was STS-11(41B), the LH mid center segment. The second known occurrence of blow-by in the program was on this joint. Interesting as well. By the time of the Challenger accident, 75% of the segments flown were "used"

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  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, no single good source exists for the stacking information. I have developed a spreadsheet which I am sure is 100% accurate for the first 25 flights. The source was former MTI engineers and managers who have been working with me on the stacking issue. The real issue with this data is that NASA did not have direct access to it in 1985. It was locked away in the VAB and under the direct control of a contractor, Lockheed Space Operations $\endgroup$ – Challenger Truth Jun 14 '17 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ The SRB segments were not interchangeable after they were filled with propellant at MTI. The aerodynamics restrictions of STS flight envelope meant that the SRB thrust profile had to essentially "throttle" up,down and back up. This meant that the Fwd segment had a star configuration in it, the center segment had a oval shaped pour thicker at the top thinner at the base and the aft segment had thinnest propellant depth of the 3 segments. Once segments were poured at MTI they were locked into a position on the SRB. This came into play at the FRR on 12/5/85 with STS-51L segment swap. $\endgroup$ – Challenger Truth Aug 1 at 2:13

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