As I understand it, the Space Shuttle was essentially a glider when it was coming back to land, and the engines were not there to facilitate powered flight.

So what was the procedure, had the Space Shuttle had to do an aborted landing?

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    $\begingroup$ A glider is a wrong term. A flying brick is much closer to the truth. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2014 at 12:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Rikki-Tikki-Tavi The OMS are mostly used up, by landing time, and have insufficient impulse to do much of anything to a landing shuttle. Not even sure they can successfully fire at normal atmospheric pressure! $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Sep 22, 2014 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ No. The Shuttle was (not is!) a falling brick. A falling brick with no fuel. Landing the Shuttle was a one-shot event. It either worked, or it didn't. If it didn't work, that would have meant landing somewhere other than the runway. One way or the other, the Shuttle was going to land, period. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2014 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ "Just get us on the ground" "Oh, that part will happen pretty definitely..." $\endgroup$ Sep 23, 2014 at 8:15
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    $\begingroup$ The two "fail" scenarios would seem to be "land short" and "land long". On the way down, didn't the Shuttle do some S-turns, presumably starting with excess energy for the required approach, and S-turning as required (and by the way it had a split rudder style air brake) to correct onto the proper approach glide path? Yes I said glide path; compared to any other aircraft it may have been a brick but its final descent still qualifies as gliding. $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Dec 18, 2014 at 3:08

4 Answers 4


If the Space Shuttle missed its landing approach, what could have been done?

Nothing. Not one thing.

Once the reentry burn was complete, the Shuttle was either going to explode on the way down or land at or near the intended landing site. There was no such thing as an aborted/retried landing. If the Shuttle didn't land at the intended landing site, it was still going to land near that site. The reentry burn made the decision to land irrevocable. The only way to avoid landing was not to perform that reentry burn.

Because landing was a one-shot event, the number one perceived threat to a safe landing was bad weather. There were quite a few Shuttle flights that spent an extra day or two on orbit because of forecasts of inclement weather at or near the intended landing site. Some of the Shuttle flights that were intended to land at the Cape ended up landing at Edwards Air Force Base because of continued threats of bad weather at the Cape. One flight, STS-3, ended up landing at White Sands because of continued threats of bad weather at Edwards.

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    $\begingroup$ Also note that the reason only one flight ever landed at WSSH was that STS-3 was the only flight where weather made Edwards unuseable and which occurred before the Shuttle Landing Facility at KSC became operational. After the SLF opened for business, flights scheduled to land at Edwards would divert to KSC in the event of bad weather, rather than to WSSH. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Jul 19, 2019 at 3:49

The other answers address the case of nominal entries. Since the question references aborts, perhaps the intent is to ask about ascent aborts which result in a stable entry that does not reach a runway. In this case a special autopilot mode would be engaged which basically held the wings level, the side hatch would be jettisoned and the crew would use the "escape pole" to bail out. The orbiter would eventually crash into the water.

Note that this was an extremely unlikely situation due to ascent flight design closing most of the black zones.

More information here

And, you can read the bailout flight rules here (Paragraph A2-251)

  • $\begingroup$ Actually, there were still considerable portions of the ascent during which a multiple engine failure could have forced a bailout - the "black zones" you mention were actually the portions of the envelope where, were a three-SSME-out event to occur, control of the orbiter would have been lost or structural limits exceeded before a bailout became possible, resulting in a non-survivable situation. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    May 31, 2018 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ 3-engine-out? Now there's a bad day! $\endgroup$ May 31, 2018 at 18:08

The answer is that they made sure everything went smooth, understanding they had one chance only:

  1. They rather used an alternative landing strip than risk landing in bad weather (unlike commercial flights)
  2. They were able to control speed of descent to make sure to make it to the runway.
  3. The runway also was long enough that if they landed midway (too long) they had enough room to stop. This prevented "normal" runways to be used for the shuttle.
  4. Emergency teams were ready in case that 1,2,3 was not enough to save the crew.
  • $\begingroup$ Normal runways could be used for the Shuttle, but they had to be big. My home flying field was a designated shuttle alternative. It was a military field designed for fully liaded B-52s, so it was almost 15,000 ft long and 200' wide. There are quite a few runways roughly that size around the world. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Hanson
    May 25, 2023 at 18:27

The early orbiter design for Columbia included emergency ejection seats useful for a late aborted orbiter landing for two cockpit located astronauts. Early Shuttle Astronauts trained in test seats and the flight cabin mockups at JSC/Houston fully included the related seat hardware and means of activation.

The propellants though at Kennedy Launch facility were never loaded and the seats were never available for arming in any landing emergency. This decision was reported to be a direct request of STS-1 astronaut John Young as he had early concerns for the seats operational safety as well as a possible accidental activation during their times of non-use.

Shuttle crews for the following flights also abandoned the emergency egress seat design altogether citing that the seats only afforded a flight crew of two emergency egress, though crews were exceeding that number. On Columbia's later makeover, the emergency seat design was fully removed.

  • $\begingroup$ What 'propellants' are you referring to?' If you mean the seats were never functional, you are wrong. Provide a basis for your assertion and I'll remove my downvote. $\endgroup$ Dec 19, 2015 at 12:55
  • $\begingroup$ The landing support team for TV and Photo duties was comprised largely of JSC based techs and operators deployed each mission from Houston to the Edwards or White Sands landing sites. The planned/simmed locations of the lakebed support equipment and personnel included consideration for relaying and documenting various landing anomalies including an emergency activation of the seats. NASA management redirected these efforts citing the actual unavailability of the activation of the seats. $\endgroup$
    – Jay Dawn
    Dec 20, 2015 at 18:54
  • $\begingroup$ If the information provided to us regarding unavailability of the seats being activated was somehow incorrect, advise and will be happy to remove that part of the reference as it is not necessary to the overall meaning of the post. $\endgroup$
    – Jay Dawn
    Dec 20, 2015 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ Like accidental activation while in space? Yikes that does sound scary. $\endgroup$
    – zundi
    Jan 14, 2019 at 23:53

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