The paintings of the Apollo command module and space shuttle below portray the heating effects of re-entry. The whitest parts of the spacecraft get the hottest, with cooler parts in red and darker colors. If the spacecraft has to fall through the atmosphere to return to Earth, why don't the bottom parts of the craft (green arrows) get the hottest?

Apollo re-entry heat Shuttle re-entry heat

Related: What are the top temperatures occurring during reentry?

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    $\begingroup$ > (Intentionally written with a common misconception. A good answer will address that common misconception. For the record, I do know the answer.) It's not a very good-faith question then. So in that spirit, I offer this not-very-good-faith answer: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_entry (see caption on related image). $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 2:04
  • $\begingroup$ This is an aerodynamic shadow. buran.ru/htm/tersaf4.htm $\endgroup$
    – A. Rumlin
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 3:22
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    $\begingroup$ If you have a good answer to this already, I'd recommend you answer yourself so others can review $\endgroup$
    – Jack
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 7:51
  • $\begingroup$ Even if people only suspect you know the answer but aren't telling, they still get a little persnickety. While people like challenge questions, in my experience they don't like it when they feel like they are being quizzed. It's your choice of course, but in this particular SE site explicit quiz questions are sometimes not well received. It's unpredictable. I have suggested once or twice before we have a "space golf" or a "puzzler" tag. (reminiscent of code golf). $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ Aren't the two images provided artist renditions? I don't think artist renditions are proof that it is indeed hotter at the top, it could just be how they drew it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 13:44

1 Answer 1


The answer belies the common misconception that getting to and from space is merely a matter of going up and down through the atmosphere. At this phase of re-entry, the velocity of the spacecraft is mostly in the direction across the atmosphere, not down through the atmosphere. You can see that the hottest points on both spacecraft are actually along the leading edges, not the bottom.

We've visited the topic of orbital speed before (as has XKCD). Although you have to get "high enough" to get into space, you also need to get "fast enough" to stay there. In particular, there must be a significant component of the velocity tangential to the orbit (that is, in the direction around the Earth). The Shuttle did this by pitching over quite early in its ascent, reaching an orbital velocity in the range of 7.5 to 8.0 km/s.

XKCD not fast enough for space

Returning from orbit requires the spacecraft to lose this velocity, which is done by atmospheric drag. The hottest part of the spacecraft will be at the edges facing the direction of the velocity (bow shock). Because the velocity is still mostly in the tangential direction, it is the edges along the side facing the orbital velocity. As you can see in the Shuttle painting, these leading edges are the nose and the forward edges of the wings and vertical stabilizer. The hottest parts of the Shuttle were covered in black tiles, and you can see them in the picture below covering the nose, wing edges, and tail edges (even in places that are on the "top side"!).

Shuttle orbiter in profile

Re-entry for Apollo was somewhat more complicated, as it was a trans-Earth injection rather than a low Earth orbit. The re-entry speed was 11 km/s. However, the direction of this velocity was still mostly across the atmosphere, rather than down through the atmosphere (see "relative wind" in the diagram below). Again, the hottest part of the spacecraft will be the side facing the direction of travel (the right side in the painting above). Indeed, the heat shields of Apollo capsules were not uniformly constructed, but instead were thickest on one edge of the base of the spacecraft. From Apollo Experience Report: Thermal Protection System (Tech Note D-7564):

Apollo ablator thickness

Why did the Apollo and Shuttle descend pitched at an angle, rather than purely horizontal or vertical? Well, that's the subject of another question...

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    $\begingroup$ wasn't that obvious from the whizz lines? $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ @JCRM: Great observation, but perhaps not obvious to those who have the "falling down" misconception. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 12:36
  • $\begingroup$ Can we get a source on i.sstatic.net/91A7l.png? It's the main image proving that they knew re-entry was hotter at the top than the bottom. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ Also, I'm going to guess the answer is bow-shock. The front-most piece of the aircraft will split the atmosphere further and further from the rest of the craft, meaning that the first edges, along the velocity vector, will hit the atmosphere first, causing the pressure there to be at maximum. The further from this initial point of impact we go the pressure and heat would be lessened. The gradient on that diagram definitely looks like a pressure gradient of something that's in flight (and pressure can equal heat). This is a total guess by the way, but it sounds plausible. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ What a great picture of Atlantis (sniffle). $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 1:25

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