@OrganicMarble's comment says:

Rhea Seddon describes in her bio standing and walking around in the shuttle middeck in the early part of entry when g's were low. "...I had this funny sensation of being extra light, as if on the surface of the moon." This was an early flight when pressure suits were not worn for entry. She did "giant ballet leaps" Go for Orbit pp. 273-274

When I think of a spacecraft's entry, descent and landing I think of something happening fairly quickly and decisively; once that deorbit kick happens, a half orbit later you're going to enter the thicker part of the atmosphere and as soon as you lose speed you will start to descend into the exponentially thickening atmosphere which will slow you down faster, which will increase your rate of descent, which will...

Once Shuttle reentry begins, I am imagining without knowledge that there's only about 30 seconds between the first real perception of any departure from microgravity to the time when the acceleration felt by astronauts passes 1 gee and starts squishing them into whatever safe space they've managed to place themselves ahead of time.

So I'm also imagining without knowledge that they'd be all buckled up in their seats with their tray tables are in their full upright position five minutes ahead of time, at least according to safety procedures, so that if there are any hitches (e.g. tray table is stuck, seat belt won't click) there are a few minutes to deal with it.

Question: During reentry, when were Shuttle crew absolutely required to have their seat belts fastened and their tray tables in their full upright position, i.e. not dancing around in the middeck doing cartwheels and whatnot?

If the rules evolved from the "early flights" mentioned in the quote to later flights, that would be good to know too.

  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by tray tables? $\endgroup$ – DrSheldon Mar 7 at 5:32
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    $\begingroup$ At least one came home standing en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Story_Musgrave#STS-80 so certainly possible - not an answer since actions of an individual rather than policy. $\endgroup$ – GremlinWranger Mar 7 at 7:51
  • $\begingroup$ @GremlinWranger Wow, I guess those wings came in pretty handy when returning from space! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 7 at 7:55
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    $\begingroup$ @DrSheldon don't explain the joke, etc $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Mar 7 at 10:01
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I was gonna mention the Story story, so since the the question asks 'absolutely required' the answer must be 'never'. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Mar 7 at 12:46


  • There was no procedural or flight rule requirement for the mission specialists seated on the middeck to be seated at a particular time.
  • The Orbiter g-loading during entry was moderate (~1.6 g's max) and increased slowly.
  • The Orbiter seats were not equipped with tray tables, but did incorporate a five-point restraint harness.

Procedural Details and The Lack Thereof

To explain the shuttle entry procedures and their time references, some background information must be covered.

  • Two reference times were used in the procedures. One timeline counted down to the ignition of the deorbit burn, written TIG, and the other timeline counted down to Entry Interface, written EI. EI was defined as the Orbiter reaching an altitude of 400,000 feet. This happened about 30 minutes after completion of the deorbit burn.

  • At any given point during a shuttle mission, one particular checklist was the "controlling document". During the first part of the countdown to TIG, the controlling document was the Deorbit Prep Checklist. Thirty minutes prior to the burn, the Entry Checklist became the controlling document, and remained the controlling document for the remainder of the mission. The controlling documents and their times of applicability are shown in this graphic. I have highlighted the ones of interest to this answer.

enter image description here

The Deorbit Prep Checklist contained a useful summary timeline of the countdown to TIG. I show an excerpt here with references to seat ingress annotated. Note that this timeline, although found in the Deorbit Prep Checklist, shows events extending past the time that this is the controlling document.

enter image description here

However, only the flight deck crewmember seat ingresses are ever specifically called out in the checklists.

  • The commander and pilot seat ingresses are called out in the Deorbit Prep Checklist at TIG-00:58
  • The mission specialists seated on the flight deck (MS1 and MS2) seat ingresses are called out in the Entry Checklist at TIG-00:25 (This differs from the time line given in the Deorbit Prep Checklist!)
  • The seat ingress times are never specifically called out for mission specialists seated in the middeck.

In practice, shuttle mission commanders had a great deal of leeway in how to organize the "housekeeping" portions of their misson. While the "systems" milestones were tightly structured and monitored by the ground (when devices were turned on and off, when data was entered into the onboard computers, etc); activities such as donning or doffing of suits, stowing and deploying crew seats, ingressing and egressing those seats, etc; could be arranged by the commander to fit their preferences and the needs of their particular mission.

Here is an example of a such a customized deorbit prep timeline from a mission that I supported. I have removed names and mission designations and highlighted areas pertinent to this question.

Note that this particular commander suited up and and ingressed their seat prior to the start of the deorbit prep timeline, hours before the checklist called for it.

enter image description here enter image description here

Bottom line, the mission commander determined when the middeck mission specialists must strap in.

The Acceleration Environment of the Orbiter During Entry

After the deorbit burn was executed, there was an approximate 30 minute period of free-fall until EI. After EI, the acceleration built up at a moderate rate, taking ~15 minutes to reach 1 g, and peaking at only about 1.6 gs.

enter image description here

The Absence of Tray Tables

The seats utilized by mission specialists in the orbiter were foldable for stowage. This was done after ascent to make room in the cabin. They were not equipped with tray tables, but did incorporate five-point safety harnesses.

enter image description here

enter image description here


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    $\begingroup$ Wow, I hadn't realized how gentle reentry was for shuttle. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Mar 7 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ Brah - you do realize that the tray table stuff was a joke, right? $\endgroup$ – Chris B. Behrens Mar 8 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ Well, you do win a prize for dry delivery, then :). $\endgroup$ – Chris B. Behrens Mar 8 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisB.Behrens Often humor doesn't translate well to print; since it was mentioned multiple times in the title and body of the question, and there was an apparently serious comment about it, it seemed best to address it in a straightforward manner. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Mar 8 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ It's happened to me a couple of times - asking in a lighthearted way, and getting down-voted for it. I think it's a function of print and also the StackOverflow culture. $\endgroup$ – Chris B. Behrens Mar 9 at 1:08

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