Soyuz remains docked to ISS for months at a time, then returns the crew to Earth.

The longest the shuttle has stayed in orbit on any single mission is 17.5 days on mission STS-80 in November 1996 src

I wonder if it was an inherent limitation of the shuttle, or just some problem of mission logistics and such. Could the shuttle serve as the same kind of "lifeboat" as Soyuz does now?

on a personal note, I think it would have been nice if they left one shuttle berthed permanently to ISS, as storage space and an emergency shelter, when they were retired.

  • $\begingroup$ There was an extension for the shuttle en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extended_Duration_Orbiter with additional tanks for liquid hydrogen and oxygen for the fuel cells. But the maximum docking time is limited by the boil-off rate of the liquid gases, there should be enough cryogenic fuel left for the cells for the return to earth. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Jun 2 '17 at 9:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Uwe: While berthed, it could leech off ISS power. And for the return trip duration possibly some more conservative solution than LH2/LOX fuel cells could be used... $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Jun 2 '17 at 10:21
  • $\begingroup$ There should be enough oxygen left for the astronauts during return too. The water from the fuel cells was used for cooling too, without water, the electronics may overheat. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Jun 2 '17 at 16:40

Shuttle mission length was limited by lots of consumables, including propellant and canisters for the life support system.

The Station-to-Shuttle Power Transfer System (SSPTS) could provide electrical power to the Shuttle, but it only allowed the shuttle to remain docked for an extra 4 days. Only Discovery and Endeavour were equipped with the SSPTS.

The Space Shuttle was most often utilized in its last 10 years of operations as a construction vehicle that hauled pieces of the enormous ISS into orbit. Since much of its time on these missions was spent docked to the station, it seemed logical to design a way for the Orbiter to draw power from the massive solar panels and batteries of the ISS. These solar panels enjoy the renewable resource of sunlight as their power source whereas the shuttle’s fuel cells have a limited amount of cryogenic reactant on board. By being able to run the fuel cells at their minimum power of about 2 kW, the team would be able to increase their cryogenic margins and remain in orbit for 2-3 extra days. These added days allowed critical time for extra-vehicular activities (EVA) or other work on the ISS.

The system that connected the Orbiter power system to that of the ISS was called the Station to Shuttle Power Transfer System (SSPTS). This system was able to increase the docked duration from about 6-8 days to approximately 9-12 days by transferring responsibility of up to 8 kW of the Orbiter’s load to the ISS. This power transfer was achieved by adding two power transfer units (PTUs) to the Orbiter which converted the 120VDC input power from the station to 28VDC expected by the main buses (Fig. 27).

An additional limit is the year-end rollover on the Shuttle's computers, which was worked around by not having the Shuttles fly on New Year's Eve.


When Shuttle was docked, it was used to do any propulsive maneuvers the station required. So, eventually you would use up enough prop to hit the propellant quantity redlines for a safe deorbit. You might be able to stretch it by switching back and forth between ISS and Shuttle control, but I don't know how well ISS motion control would work with a docked Shuttle. My guess is, not well.

A true number would require detailed analysis of the use of Shuttle prop while docked, what the prop quantities at docking were, and what the deorbit redlines were. Good exercise for the reader.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If both motion controls of the ISS and the Shuttle were active simultaneously, some propellant could be wasted by fighting controls. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Jun 3 '17 at 15:46

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