Many of us have watched the launch of a Space Shuttle space ship, I think: a giant red rocket, some smaller, and the way smaller space ship on the red one.

It reaches Mach 23 to be able to leave Earth. But what's the amount of fuel that is used overall for this purpose? How much fuel is burnt in the first phases? (so it doesn't include the fuel burnt by the space shuttle itself; only the rockets)

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    $\begingroup$ The red part is actually a fuel tank. It feed fuel to the shuttle's main engines. So, that fuel is actually burned by the shuttle. The only fuel not burned by the shuttle is the fuel in the SRBs. Here's an article describing the external fuel tank: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_external_tank $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ So...do you want to include the fuel from the external tank, even though it's actually burned by the shuttle's main engines? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ @DonBranson Oh yes, exactly, that's what I was thinking; I just didn't know its proper name. I want to include only the fuel of the external tank. because if I know well, actually the external tank itself brings the space ship into orbit. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 23:00

1 Answer 1


NASA's Space Transportation System (STS) vehicle, better known as the Space Shuttle, used two single engine Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) as Stage 0, an engineless external tank providing propellant for the three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) on the orbiter as stage 1, and additional two Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) hypergolic liquid-propellant rocket engines on the Space Shuttle orbiter as stage 2.

The two solid rocket boosters used roughly 500,000 kg (1.1 Mlb) of a 11-star perforated solid propellant cake of Ammonium Perchlorate Composite Propellant (APCP - a mixture of of ammonium perchlorate, aluminium, iron oxide, PBAN or HTPB polymers, and an epoxy curing agent) each, that provided 124 seconds of burn time with a specific impulse (Isp) of 269 s that provided 12.5 MN of thrust per SRB and the external tank that came in three different configurations (mostly progressively reducing tank's own weight) capacity was 629,340 kg (1,387,457 lb) of cryogenic liquid oxygen (LOX) as the oxidizer and 106,261 kg (234,265 lb) of cryogenic liquid hydrogen (LH2) as the fuel components of the bipropellant LOX/LH2 that provided 480 seconds of burn time with specific impulse of 455 seconds, resulting in 5.45 MN of thrust at sea-level (for the Super Lightweight Tank or SLWT, the last and most advanced of the three versions used with STS).

So to answer your question directly, not counting the OMS propellant as per the specifics of your question, the total mass of all propellants of the SRBs (stage 0) and the external tank (stage 1) was at launch of the STS 1,735,601 kg (3,821,722 lb). The solid rocket boosters provided roughly 83% of liftoff thrust for the Space Shuttle and were the largest, most powerful solid-propellant motors flown to date.

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    $\begingroup$ So, overall, this is the amount of fuel that is necessary to bring a typical shuttle like the Discovery into space? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 23:14
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    $\begingroup$ That would be it yes. Well, according to my sources at least, but I can't imagine quotes varying too much here. There were three variants of the external tank, but I wasn't able to find any difference in their actual capacity. Just to be safe though, I've mentioned those numbers are for the SLWT. One other thing I could perhaps add is that the SSMEs were able to perform at over 100% their nominal performance (that 100% was determined during development stage, so that's why we heard stuff like 104.5% and 109% later on on SSME throttle-up). $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ 3.8 million lbs, colloquially known as a crap load. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Erik No, I assumed that OP meant "propellants" and that's how I wrote in my answer, despite the question asking about "fuel" (it doesn't make any distinction between the two and there were some slight language barriers to overcome). What I didn't account for was the ullage gas, because that's not considered as "fuel" even colloquially. $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ To be even more picky, the SRBs and the orbiter had a secondary, hypergolic fuel (hydrazine) used to power hydraulic systems which provided thrust vectoring. Strictly speaking, that was also necessary to get to orbit. It didn't contribute to thrust, but was needed to keep the vehicle pointed in the right direction on the way up. $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 3:09

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