Could the space shuttles have been left in space and used as temporarily visited space stations? One could put a modified spacehab in the cargo bay, with solar panels and with which the Soyuz/Dragon could dock. Wouldn't it have been a cheap and capable alternative to the ISS? Could its systems for life support et cetera work long term? Could they have been put to better use than as museum pieces, with some planning and minor modifications, or is it completely crazy? (I realize that they are not launchable anymore).

Or maybe more realistically, couldn't they simply have been left as modules docked to the ISS? They would've provided some extra working space for the crew, boosting capability for orbital station keeping, RTG power, cargo handling, independent life support and an emergency landing system. The whole point with landing them was to reuse them. Well, they weren't reused after the last landing, so they should never have been landed the last time.

Endeavours last visit at the ISS

Endeavours last visit at the ISS, seen from Soyuz. Could it have stayed there?

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    $\begingroup$ @AndrewThompson Extra working space for the crew, I've heard that the real estate prices per cubic meter are high up there. Reboosting capability for orbital station keeping, RTG power, cargo handling, an emergency landing system, independent life support and communication system and independent everything as a backup and for everyday extended capability. Was the space shuttle useful in space, other than as a cargo launcher? I think so. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Mar 14, 2015 at 7:35
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    $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff: the Shuttle didn't have an RTG, it used fuel cells for power. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Mar 14, 2015 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ The shuttle would add drag, increase air loss towards vacuum, need extra energy for cooling,... It might have been expensive just to keep it up there ... $\endgroup$
    – Antzi
    Mar 15, 2015 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ ...and it's awfully off-center for reboosts. Although scavenging it for useful systems and dumping the shell might be worthwhile. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Nov 25, 2015 at 11:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Sean not il the long run. It might or might not decay slower but it will also require more propellant to reboost $\endgroup$
    – Antzi
    Jul 21, 2019 at 2:51

2 Answers 2


The Shuttle was designed for missions of around 10 days. With the Extended Duration Orbiter system added, missions could be 14-19 days long. STS-80 was the longest actual mission at 17 days. Mission lifetime was limited by fuel for the fuel cells which power the Shuttle.

The EDO pallet weighed 3.2 tons fueled and was 4.5 m in diameter and (my estimate) 1.5-2 m long. NASA considered fitting a shuttle with 2 pallets for missions of up to 28 days. Another limit is life support: CO2 removal is done by lithium hydroxide canisters which need replacement every 12 hours.

So the Shuttle needs a lot of consumables to keep working. I suspect when the Shuttle was docked to the ISS, it relied on the ISS life support system (haven't been able to find references for this yet).

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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble I suppose a shuttle and a station, days or decades in orbit, are two different concepts with many different requirements. Two point three extra Soyuz launches to get the shuttle crew back home doesn't help the economics of it. And add to that the lost museum revenues during centuries. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Mar 14, 2015 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ Shuttle design was highly constrained by the requirement to fly back and land...to say the least. $\endgroup$ Mar 14, 2015 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ Fun fact: NASA specifically avoided having the Shuttle launch, land or in orbit on new year's eve. The Shuttle computers were not exactly state-of-the-art and NASA wasn't really sure what the roll-over to a new year would do to them. They even moved STS 116's target date to two weeks earlier to avoid this possibility. $\endgroup$
    – JDT
    Mar 19, 2015 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ The "year-end-roll-over" (YERO) was a giant bugaboo the whole time I worked at JSC. The basic problem was that the onboard computers' clocks rolled to day 366 and the shuttle Master Timing Unit rolled to day 1. (I may have gotten this backwards, but you get the idea) Boom, incompatibility and massive issues. Every time it looked like a possibility, off to the simulators to see if it would cause a problem. The only mission that even got close was STS-103, which landed on 27 December 1999. A solution was proposed in 2007 but never used. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2017 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ Discovery is on display at The Smithsonian's Udvar Hazey facility. Visiting it is free. So there is no "museum revenue" happening there. I'm not sure about her sisters. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Jun 6, 2018 at 3:16

Yes. This was actually studied during original ISS design talks post Challenger accident as a way to get a station up more quick and at lower cost.

That proposal though wasn't really about just leaving the shuttle as is in orbit but modified for that purpose. The proposal would take shuttle Columbia and stip it down, remove wings, landing gear, tail, heat shield etc, basically remove anything needed for reentry and landing since you'd never need it.

This would have made the shuttle able to carry significant larger up mass giving it orbital lift approaching 90tons. Rather than use spacelab they would be into the cargo bay a permanent module with necessary docking adapters for expansion. Radiators would be incorporated into the cargo bay doors and where the wings use to mount would be two massive solar arrays which would fold out once in orbit.

Obviously the plan never got far but it would have saved ton of money, gotten us an operational station out the gate and actually much more rack space than current ISS.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have a link for the study mentioned? $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Dec 20, 2021 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ Radiators were always in the doors. I, too, would like to see a reference on this. $\endgroup$ Dec 20, 2021 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ I'd love to see more on this! Diagrams, details, budget estimates $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2021 at 15:12

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