Space Shuttle and the Moon

Simply put, the Shuttle was never designed to go to the Moon. Its original purpose was a means to an end--a transport vehicle to a permanent station in space. But as history has played out, the Shuttle ended up being its own laboratory in space--for 12 days at a crack--and the permanent station is only now being built twenty years after the first Shuttle launch.

Setting all that aside, the Shuttle simply doesn't have the delta-v (a measure of how much "energy" the vehicle can produce) needed to get into a trans-lunar orbit. That's what was so amazing about the Saturn V. It had all that power in its various stages, and yet it could only send a lander, command module, and service module to the Moon. Those three vehicles together probably don't take up half of the Shuttle's cargo bay, let alone the rest of the vehicle.

So while the Shuttle certainly has the cargo space to carry the necessary equipment and can remain in space for about two weeks, which was the length of the Apollo missions, it simply doesn't have the propulsive force needed to travel beyond low-Earth orbit. I suppose it might be possible to design some kind of large booster rocket to give the Shuttle the impulse needed to make that kind of trip, but it isn't really practical.

The Shuttle is designed primarily to power its way through the atmophere to get into orbit and to glide back through the atmosphere to land on a runway. As such, it is equipped with many features that simply aren't needed for interplanetary travel (like wings, for example). These features would be nothing but dead weight during a lunar trip, and it would not be at all efficient to carry that dead weight to the Moon and back.

What might be a more feasible idea is to carry a lunar lander, orbital module, rocket booster, and any other necessary components into orbit aboard a shuttle-type vehicle, assemble them in Earth orbit, and send that vehicle on its way to the Moon. Upon completion of the lunar mission, the astronauts could then dock with the Shuttle for a return to Earth. The advantage of this approach is that the lunar vehicle wouldn't need to carry any parachutes, heat shields, or other equipment needed for a landing on the Earth's surface.

This kind of idea is what NASA has been dreaming of for decades. The key is a space station at which a Shuttle can dock to ferry personnel and equipment to and from the Earth and from which interplanetary vehicles can depart to explore the solar system. But the Shuttle itself just can't do it all. It's sort of like asking, "Why can't we use roller blades to go mountain climbing?" And again, simply put, they were never designed for that task.
- answer by Aaron Brown, 30 June 2002

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