Next Generation Spacecraft No Comparison To Shuttle

None of the various spacecraft currently being developed to return U.S. astronauts to orbit have all the capabilities and capacities that NASA's decommissioned orbiters had. Photo Credit: Alan Walters /

The crop of space capsules that are currently being developed to return U.S. astronauts to orbit have all-too-often been dubbed “replacements” for the winged spacecraft that ferried crews to orbit for the past thirty years. But how similar is the shuttle to any of these new spacecraft? With few exceptions – there are virtually no similarities. Under the Obama White House and his appointed officials, NASA has been directed to encourage the commercial space industry to produce spacecraft and launch vehicles to carry cargo and crew to low-Earth-orbit (LEO). It is hoped this will free up the space agency to focus on sending astronauts beyond LEO. The spacecraft that have emerged in CGI imagery, PowerPoint presentations and occasionally real life all vary in their appearance and capabilities.

Spacecraft Views

To highlight the differences between the shuttles, now on their way to museums and tourist attractions across the nation, and these emerging spacecraft – specific elements of each are detailed below.

Although NASA's next spacecraft, Orion, and the commercial spacecraft that are currently being developed are touted as being "replacements" for the shuttle - none of them compare to the robust suite of capabilities that the space shuttle had. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian
  • The Shuttles – Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. Each of these winged spacecraft has a payload bay some 60 feet in length – which is designed to carry a wide range of payloads in a variety of different configurations. The shuttles also have a remote manipulator system (RMS – the shuttle’s robotic arm) which allows for both cargo and crew to be moved around in the vacuum of space. An airlock that allows crew members to perform      extra-vehicular activities.

Length – 122 Feet

Width – 78 Feet

Payload Bay – 60 Feet long by 15 Feet wide.

Remote Manipulator System


The Orion spacecraft, built by Lockheed-Martin, has been often dubbed as the shuttle's replacement - but how many of the shuttle's capabilities are incorporated into the capsule-shaped spacecraft? It turns out, very few. Image Credit: NASA
  • Lockheed-Martin’s  Orion spacecraft. This vehicle is not a part of NASA’s new commercial efforts per-se; however it is commonly referred to as the orbiter’s successor. There are virtually no similarities between NASA’s fleet of decommissioned orbiters and this new spacecraft. Orion is capable of being re-used six times at most. Orion has no payload bay, no robot arm and if crews wish to conduct EVAs – the capsule will have to be depressurized, requiring the entire crew (Orion has the capacity of carrying up to six astronauts) to don their space suits. In fact, if the service module section of the spacecraft was two feet less in diameter – it could fit      inside of the shuttle’s payload bay. When Constellation was NASA’s program-of-record, there was an effort by Canada (the developers of many of the robotic arms NASA uses) to build a robot arm to be used on Orion.

Length – 26 Feet

Diameter – 16.5 Feet

Payload Bay – NA

Remote Manipulator System – None

Partially Reusable

Boeing's CST-100 has been called a "space-taxi" and can either ferry astronauts or cargo (or some combination of the two). Image Credit: The Boeing Company
  • The Boeing  Company’s CST-100 Space Taxi. This spacecraft is in some ways a simpler  version of the Orion spacecraft. It can carry a crew of six, cargo (the  amount of cargo would vary depending on the number of astronauts on board. That is about all this vehicle is capable of. It is designed to ferry humans and materials to orbit – and back, it is not reusable and has no EVA capabilities. Although the exact size of the spacecraft is unavailable it is estimated to be larger than the Apollo spacecraft but smaller than Orion.

Length – Unknown

Width – Unknown

Remote Manipulator System – None

Partially Reusable

Of all the capsule-based systems that are under development, SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is the most-similar to the space shuttle. However, the differences in scale, are dramatic. Image Credit: SpaceX / NASA
  • SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. In terms of basic abilities by the capsule-based systems – Dragon actually comes the closest to the shuttle in terms of capabilities. It is in terms of scale that the chasm of differences – appear. The dimensions of the payload segments work out to provide approximately 350 cubic feet of pressurized payload capacity. In terms of the spacecraft’s unpressurized elements, Dragon has about 4 cubic feet of recoverable and 490 cubic feet of non- recoverable payload capabilities. The Dragon is designed to carry up to seven astronauts.

Height – 9.5 Feet

Diameter – 11.5 Feet

Payload Capacity – Pressurized – 350 cubic feet – Unpressurized – 490 cubic feet

Remote Manipulator System – None


In a break from what many commercial companies are producing (capsule-based spacecraft) - Sierra Nevada Corporation has opted for a space plane design. Like NASA's decommissioned orbiters, this space plane is reusable. Unlike NASA's retired fleet of shuttles however, the thermal protection system is ablative and will need to be replaced after ten flights. Image Credit: SNC
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft. Physically the most similar of the space taxis to NASA’s space shuttle, the Dream Chaser space plane is reusable and is based off of one of test articles that was used to design the space capacity is. Unlike the shuttle, Dream Chaser will utilize an ablative thermal protection system that would require replacement after several flights. The Dream Chaser is not quite 30 feet in length compared the space shuttle’s 122 feet.

Length – 29.5 Feet

Width – 22.90 Feet

Remote Manipulator System – NA


The one spacecraft that comes closest to emulating the space shuttle, Dream Chaser, is not even a quarter the length of NASA’s retired fleet of orbiters. It has no robotic arm and lacks the EVA capabilities present on the space shuttle. Given that most of these vehicles could actually fit into the orbiter’s payload bays – the capacity to launch huge payloads such as the Hubble Space Telescope and whole segments of the International Space Station – has been lost. It is unknown how long these multiple capabilities the U.S. will have to do without.

Space shuttle Discovery will be retired to the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Washington. Atlantis will take a short road trip to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida and Endeavour will be sent to the California Science Center located in Los Angeles, California. The shuttle test article, Enterprise, will be moved to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum located in New York (Discovery will take Enterprise’s place in the Smithsonian).

Missions » ISS » Missions » ISS » COTS »


  1. It’s about time we go beyond Earth orbit and explore ! Going around in circles gained important information, but now it’s time to ” Go where no man has gone before ” !! Wings are usless and dead weight..Remember the Enterprise in Star Trek? … it had no wings…….

  2. Is this a little like comparing apples and oranges? The main role of the Space Shuttle (in later years) was to be the heavy lift vehicle the articulated truck of Space. The Shuttle was originally intended to be a multi-function LEO transport system for satellites and the ISS, but it proved to be cost prohibitive for launching satellites and the heavy lift work for the ISS is now complete, making the Space Shuttle redundant.

    These capsules in contrast are more like taxis to ferry passengers and supplies up to the ISS and possibly beyond. They facilitate a completely different use model requiring different designs.

    As much as I love the Space Shuttle it is time to move on. The sadness in the whole process is that when the Shuttle was retired there was no replacement in place to handle the job of transporting supplies and astronauts up to the ISS. This was shown to be a problem with the failure of a Russian Progress transport which grounded the only means of supplying and crewing the ISS.

    All good things come to an end, and I am glad that the Shuttle program flew out its final missions safely. Now is the time to reach out beyond the boundaries of our atmosphere and travel further afield. To do this we need to develop new technologies these will bring benefits to all who dwell on our planet far outstripping the investment NASA or other bodies put into the programs. The main problem is to educate the population of the advances and daily usages that these spin-off products have in our lives.

    • Sorry, but I find the spin-offs a weak justification. We need something bigger, better, and more robust.

      And that something does exist. The question is whether we are intelligent enough to embrace it or not.

  3. A few things
    1. CST-100 is a 7 person craft, not 6 –

    2. There were at least 2 other vehicles from Commercial Crew that you could’ve included, in the form of Blue Origin’s Space Vehicle, and Excalibur Almaz’s craft.
    2. I would submit that Space Shuttle had more roles than just spacecraft, including launch vehicle, and mini-space station. Therefore, I would argue part of the successor to Shuttle is the ISS, and launch vehicles like the Atlas V, the Delta IV, and the Falcon 9

    • Hey Aaron,

      Concerning images of other spacecraft, we tried to find side-view or profile-view graphics but couldn’t. Do this as an exercise; Google “SpaceX Dragon spacecraft” and try to find a profile image of Dragon. One cannot. Nor of the Dream Chaser. And not really of the CST-100, if you look closely at the one we used.

      If one goes to Apple’s Media area, one can find great promo shots, including profile, of all Apple hardware. This is what every company should do for its products.

      Note to aerospace firms, have available for media top, profile, side, front, etc. shots of your “product” and you’ll be included in press graphics. Don’t, and you won’t.


      • Jim,

        I wasn’t talking about images of other spacecraft (although I was able to find a Dreamchaser that could be added without difficulty)

        I meant inclusion in the article, in general, like you did with Dragon & DreamChaser.

  4. Between the Space Shuttle, A Glass house that killed 14 Astronauts and its worst downfall was to combine payload and human… and losing the ability to safely abort in flight…

    And the supposed “international” Space Station we have wasted untold billions if not trillions tying man to LEO…

    What have we gained by either but 14 dead Astronauts and an International Space Station that the United States is not even capable of getting its own Astronauts too…

    Both are dead ends and that couldn’t be more poignant than where the US now finds itself!!!

    Dead in the water and unable to so much as loft an Astronaut into LEO… How unbelievably sad!!!

    I my opinion we need safe sustainable infrastructure leading out to deep space…

    Separate crew and cargo as was being done…

    Let commercial deal with LEO as is being done…

    Have some sort of evolving Spaceship that never reenters Earth’s atmosphere… A test bed that’s components can be updated and morphed with newer and better technology as it advances’ i.e. propulsion and shielding… getting us to the moon and beyond…

    We need to be able to use the moon as a place to learn from and to do the hard things and push the boundries…

    Going to an asteroid… you’re kidding right???

    Obama has pushed off everything until he is out of office… nothing has happened nor will anything happen until he is replaced…

    Just as I see it…

    • I am curious
      The situation described – Commercial deal with LEO, a deep space spacecraft built on new technology going BEO – you do realize that that was what FY2011 was proposing to do?

      • FYI,

        If it wasn’t for congress… and bipartisan congress at that… by the way… there wouldn’t even be a heavy lift rocket being designed, and with the painfully small budget that has been allocated for this so called heavy lift and beyond LEO rocket… we are not even looking for this thing to begin launching Astronauts until the 2020 time frame…

        And where are we going?

        No one knows for the love of God…

        Sooo… we are building a vehicle without a bloody destination…

        An Asteroid you say… OMG… technically its a one off… if they can find an Asteroid moving slow enough and coming close enough to Earth to make that even a viable option… its a one time event…

        And once again we are putting cargo and crew together…

        I will repeat this… Obama has kicked the proverbial can down the road… throwing the United States technical prowess asunder…

        You don’t just say 5 years from now… hey boys sorry we put you out of work… please come back and help us rebuild our space fleet…

        God help us…

        • 1. Building an HLV is not exploration
          2. You do not necessarily need an HLV to do exploration. What you need is affordable, frequent launch, and the ability to assemble spacecrafts in orbit (which you alluded to)
          3. Even if you assume you need an HLV, an SDLV is not the most cost effective. An Atlas V Phase 2 would have beem much better
          4. As to where we are going – done properly, we have the technology to go everywhere.

          As for where we are going – I, frankly, am uninterested in a specific destination. I don’t want to pick the moon, or mars, or an asteroid. I want them all. Done properly, we can do them all.

          As for putting cargo and crew together – again, thats why you don’t need to build an HLV – use Delta IV, Atlas V, and Falcon 9. You can do plenty with that, and advance tech, like propellant depot, on space assembly, and advanced propulsion.

          • Stay away from the Atlas V i.e. Russian Main engines and go with the Delta IV Heavy… if you have to…

            But without in orbit refueling non of that will work at all without countless launches and massive amounts of LEO assembly time and money…

            Every study thus far says without in orbit refueling you need a heavy lift vehicle capable of placing no less than 130 tons into orbit… and probably more like 150 tons… i.e. Ares V.

            In orbit refueling makes everything doable, but that not an easy task either… so far no one has come up with a viable way of storing rocket fule in orbit for extended lengths of time…

            • The Atlas V is a fine rocket, and should be included as part of a suite of vehicles for exploration. Why you’d want to ignore a workhorse rocket is beyond me. Anyway,

              1. No less a person than Mike Griffin has said (before Congress I might add) that we could go back to the moon using for 25 mT vehicles. That is not “countless launches & massive amount of LEO assembly time and money”
              2. That said, I agree there are very good reasons to add in on-orbit refueling, and propellant depots. However, it is not true that no one has come up with a viable way of storing rocket fuel in orbit for extended lengths of time. First, we’ve demonstrated storable propellant many times, (and is how we do it with ISS). If you want to use Cryogenics, that is at a lower TRL level (5-6 or so), but that is no where near the level of “no one has come up with a viable way of storing fuel in orbit.” In fact, a recent NASA study said that you don’t need zero boil-off technology –

              (The link you want to read is Propellant Depot Requirements Study – the pages you’ll want to look at especially is 10-12

  5. as long as there are people on earth, they will risk every thing for a place in the space

  6. “As to where we are going – done properly, we have the technology to go everywhere.”

    I appreciate your enthusiasm and we need more people with it to stay the course…

    But unfortunately when you build a vehicle you should have an idea of what it is you are going to carry…

    To know what you will be carrying you should know where you are going i.e. a destination is paramount!

    And although we have come a long way technologically speaking since Apollo we can’t even get our own Astronauts to LEO…

    And as far as go anywhere… Ummmm I believe you are slightly overstating the facts a little…

    • Re building the vehicle needing to know where you are going – Not for your deep space spaceship, which is to never land on a planet. At most, we know that such a deep space spaceship will orbit around the moon, visit a L-point, orbit an asteroid, orbit around Mars, orbit around the Earth, and maybe possibly orbit around Venus (but that is rather unlikely). Those requirements are incredibly similar. So selecting a destination isn’t vital there.

      Second, I submit that destination based exploration makes it more likely that, whatever destination we pick, we’ll end up repeating the lack of follow-on that happened with Apollo.

      We do need goals in our exploration (and more importantly development), but the goals should be about building capabilities that enable more people to go farther, faster, and smarter to multiple destinations. Then colonization and settlement are more likely to happen.

      That pushes you to things like propellant depots…

  7. Unfortunately you came across a geek that actually sits and has listened almost every hearings that has been before the house and the senate… I am a huge fan of Michael Griffin. I have for the most part read or listened to just about everything he has had to say on the subject on getting us where we need to go…

    I know exactly what Micheal Griffins take is on all of this and you sir don’t have a clue of what you are talking about!

    There is basically everything you would want to know about how and what this man thinks we should be doing in this article I have provised a link to and it is counter to what you are suggesting!

    Griffin’s critique of NASA’s New Direction
    Jeff Foust – The Space Review

    As far as fuel depots you apparently haven’t a clue of what you speak???

    Propellant Depots Instead of Heavy Lift?

    Basically we have one of two problems:

    1.) Propellant Bleed-off while in orbit.

    2.) And the necessity for a Heavy Lift to get the fuel in orbit… which is what is trying to be avoided by having fuel depots in space in the first place…

    This is certainly not out of the realm of being doable but absolutely nothing like what you are saying!

    So I’m not going to repeat myself once again… Do me a favor before you come back with more nonsense why don’t you take the time to educate yourself and then maybe try to discuss what we both want to see happen in a non confrontation and without your pompous mannerisms.

    Also, although the Atlas V is a very well proven work horse what is it about having Russian main engines that eludes you and or is beyond you???

    Do I really have to spell it out to you?

    Come on……

  8. You aren’t the only person who has heard a lot of what Griffin has said on this subject, and please don’t assume that I am merely some amateur.

    As for Griffin’s take –

    (Please bear with the music choice – the video was not made by me)

    I’ve read both of those articles, a while ago. Needless to say, I have huge problems with the arguments made.

    As for propellant depot problems
    1. Bleed-off is not that much of a problem – the amount of bleed off you get is less then 1 extra flight, and that bleed off is actually used for station-keeping. We don’t need zero boil-off.

    2. Huh? Forgive me, that didn’t actually make sense.

    Also, please explain how I’ve been confrontational.

    Re: Atlas V – you are going to have to, because I don’t see a problem using Atlas V, since it is already vital for our warfighters, and unmanned spaceflight. And there is always the obvious solution if it really does become an issue using Russian engines.

  9. To say you have a “Huge problem” with the article does nothing in the way of articulate a response…

    And the article that you obviously have a “Huge Problem” with is something I believe you need to go back and actually go read again!

    If for no other reason to see who the authors were???

    Let me clue you in…

    Try “Michael Griffin” in part!!!

    So have at it… tell me the “Huge Problem” you have with the actual individual you are in support of discounting what you are saying about the viability of “Fuel Depots”…

    Propellant Depots Instead of Heavy Lift?

    By Michael D. Griffin and Scott Pace!

    Excerpt From the article:

    Wed, 2 November, 2011

    “The most reasonable claim made in support of fuel depots is that if they are employed to the exclusion of a heavy lifter, one saves the cost of building the heavy lifter. This is certainly true — but then we do not have a heavy lifter! Heavy-lift launch is a strategic capability for a spacefaring society, and its absence severely constrains any plans. The 130-metric-ton SLS capability should be regarded as the floor of space-lift capability for exploration, not the ceiling.”

    “Fuel depots as an element of a near-term space architecture are an example of magical thinking at its best, a wasteful distraction supported by the kinds of poorly vetted assumptions that can cause a concept to appear deceptively attractive. We in the space community are especially prone to such behavior. If we actually want to accomplish anything, it must cease. We need to do the right stuff, right now. When we have settlements on the Moon and Mars, the use of fuel depots will make sense. But for today, the last thing we should do is to put one of the hardest problems — long-term cryogenic fuel storage — in series with our next steps beyond LEO.”


    As far the Atlas V… Dead issue as far as I am concerned… its call “Dependency on Others” i.e. the Russian’s… Which we are already dependant on to get our Astronauts to the International Space Station for which the United States flipped most of the bill on…

    Change the Engines and it is no longer the work horse you speak of… It’s a new vehicle all together!

    Also, Controversial?

    You argue every point without concession or substance belittling all you respond too…

    Enough said… go do yourself a favor and go back and read the articles you say you already read a while ago???

    By the man you are using to back your arguments up with…

    Done with this thread… and moving on…

    Have a nice day and a great rest of your week…


    • Yes, I grant I didn’t actually articulate my problems with said article. Largely because I’ve been chastized about having comments be too long

      And I know precisely who the authors of that op-ed were. The point, which should be obvious, is Griffin is talking a bit out of both sides of his mouth (on one hand, you can go to the moon with four 25 mT rocket, OTOH you have to have Ares V class rocket)

      But you did bring up one of my biggest issues with said piece – Yes, at some point, we’ll need bigger lifters. Much like at some point we’ll probably need nuclear engines. What is left unsaid is do we need them now? Which he fails to do, because there is strong evidence that we don’t. We know what we actually need for transportation, and we can break it down into smaller pieces, and get the launch rate up. We’ve demonstrated we can do a higher launch rate than the shuttle ever achieved. Or, of course, we could simply do refueling….

      As for the as the Atlas V – who says we have to change the engines? We could do domestic production of the RD-180, while slowly transitioning to a new engine.

      As for being argumentative – believe it or not, I not only work in the industry, I work on issues related to space policy. So these are bread and butter issues for me

  10. Thank you for a more polite response and although I don’t work in the industry I am an Engineer and I have worked in all facets of a very similar industry, but with one very large difference…

    The company I work for isn’t reliant on the inefficiencies of Government funding and the politics of the day…

    We actually have to make the right calls to survive the day as well as be profitable…

    You are correct in that Mr. Griffin is speaking out both sides of his mouth and that is because there is in fact two Micheal Griffins… the NASA administrator and witness before Congress… and the now former NASA Administrator able to speak his mind from a high because of the position he once held…

    His comments of late are the ones that have substance… Go with that…

    There is an understandable difference you know…

    Government has one inefficient path… but a necessary path nonetheless…

    And private industry has a path that is mandated by it’s very survival…

    I’m praying SpaceX make a good showing in a few weeks because at this point its all we got!!!

    As for the Atlas V… again it’s a dead issue… domestic engines… and or transitioning to whatever engine is a whole new vehicle…

    We can agree to disagree instead of kicking a dead horse…


  11. And those of us in the NewSpace industry are trying to get commercial space to that point. We could be there now, had we selected a different path at the appropriate times

    To Griffin – here’s the problem with your claim. The comment I linked you to, where he is speaking out of both sides of his mouth? That wasn’t said while he was NASA administrator. That was said last September, 2 years after he was no longer NASA administrator, and part of his testimony was used later in the month for the op-ed you linked to. In short – he is speaking out of both sides of his mouth, right now (or at least, last September and October he was).

    As for differences – I don’t believe that, when it comes to Human Spaceflight, there have to be different paths. And to that end, we don’t need Super-HLVs right now, and Propellant depots, served by existing rockets, can get us to exciting destinations right now (we might now be able to get to Mars, but we aren’t going to Mars right now). And, as stated before, its better to be focused on capability based exploration, rather than destination based exploration.

    Which, while we can agree to disagree, means that Atlas V is not a dead issues, at least to me, but has to be part of our exploration and HSF plan.

  12. Ferris: Jim and Jason hate Obama and Lori Garver will a passion and will slant anything they possibly can to undermine whatever it is that Obama and Garver are trying to do.

    • Kaylee
      As you can guess, I am not a new fixture here. But I don’t have any real reason to leave right now. Someone has to speak the truth.

    • Feel better Jim?

      1. In fact, Ferris is also my part of my legal name, in addition to Aaron Oesterle. I make no bones about it, and I don’t really hide it, but I won’t be changing my online name anytime soon. Personal reasons, partly to honor someone important in my life.

      2. I’ve never actually written for Huffingtonpost. I frequently post comments, but thats no different then here (and I don’t think you’ll want me saying I write for

      3. Why you feel the need to bring Mr. Muncy into the discussion is beyond me. But I am quite proud to work for Mr. Muncy, and stand by the work we’ve done. And what we do is first, and foremost, making this a spacefaring society (something we’ve never been). If you have a problem with it, I suggest you come to DC, or even better, come to Ames during NewSpace this year. You’d learn a few things.

      4. Your claim of Falcon 9 having a “serious in-flight anomaly” is crap. Yes, there was an issue, but it was in no way a major danger. And lets also remember – for a mere fraction of the money, SpaceX has flown full rocket to orbit, 2 times, and a capsule. Compare that to Ares I and Orion (and, for the record, believe it or not, I don’t consider Orion worthless, unlike Ares I), which, despite getting Billions of dollars more, never flew.

      5. Your dissing of SpaceX in many respects is only equaled by the way you mistreat & misrepresent the other most likely provider for launch services – the Atlas V. Your fear of Atlas V is frankly, holding back NASA in a big way

      As far as Armstrong – fear-mongering and rumor spreading at its best. And it pained me to sit in the audience and listen to it. The simple fact is, anyone looking at the situation could see changes had to come, and were required. And FY2011 largely followed Option 5B. But that meant some very uncomfortable changes, and possibly facing some unpleasant truths about how NASA has been operating.

      That said, I agree, it is a debate about the role the US will play in settling the heavens. and believe it or not, I agree the US should play a preeminent role in Space.

      But your last statement doesn’t follow your previous statements. More importantly, you’ve failed to mention at least part of what this is about. You wrap your comments in the fervor of someone in love with the idea of settlement, but what you are really in love with is the vision of NASA that Mike Griffin sold you (not a vision of America leadership in space, but of NASA glory), that was never something a large portion of the nation actually believed.

      I am sorry for that, desperately sorry for that. But we cannot delay the quickest path to settlement to soothe people’s egos. And that means rapid commercialization, and embracing new technology that lowers costs.

      Oh, and one last thing – if you want to ensure that the government can execute human space exploration policy with its own, does that mean you are for nationalizing Boeing, ATK, and Lockheed Martin? Since you’ll need to do that. Because thats the other side you haven’t stated – this isn’t about great exploration plans. Its also about who gets Billions in cost-plus contracts.

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