The intricacies involved in launching a shuttle off the ground and successfully completing its mission is no doubt a meticulous task. Every move made during a launch is calculated and deliberate, nothing is left for chance.

On that note, having watched a couple of historic shuttle launches, this peculiar behavior caught my eye: the orbiter always faced the earth! ( The orbiter is the plane part of the shuttle)

Why do shuttles orient belly up ?

Protection against space debris

Upon entering the atmosphere, most space debris burn up. But out in space, without the protective blanket of our atmosphere, the space shuttle is exposed to all sizes and shapes of space debris ( also man-made ).

The space shuttle’s belly is designed to take up intense heat and pressure so that the shuttle doesn’t fall apart when it re-enters the atmosphere, and therefore best suited for taking hits from flying space junk

The Sun

Do you remember the heat-resistant space shuttle tiles that I posted about a couple of weeks back?

Putting the spacecraft with it’s bottom to the Sun it is these heat-resistant tiles on the bottom that are most exposed to the full power of the Sun.

This keeps the astronauts safer and cooler than they would be otherwise.

To maneuver

Wait, space shuttles maneuver in flight ? Yup ! For each mission the shuttle must be launched at a certain angle in order to accomplish the prescribed task.

Since the launch pad is fixed i.e you cannot change its angular orientation, the shuttle must perform the maneuver during the ascent in order to orient itself with the trajectory.

This maneuver is known as the Roll maneuver and is performed at a point about one minute or so after the launch.

The Atlantis performing a roll maneuver


Well, I think this thought might have already crossed your mind.

The belly down position assists in communication with the ground and allows instruments within the cargo bay to be pointed back towards Earth, which is required for many of the experiments carried within the bay.

Home, Sweet Home !

The reason why the shuttle’s cargo bay faces towards the earth has some psychological benefit as well.

The crew of the crew are given the spectacular views of our home planet glorifying the magnificence of its existence, rather than staring at the cold, dark void of space that lies afar.