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Microgravity: living on the International Space Station
Microgravity: living on the International Space Station

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3 How astronauts get up there

Astronauts first need to get into space – but how? Obviously, a powerful rocket is needed. In the 1960s, the rocket that sent men to the Moon – Saturn V (Five) – was at the time the most powerful machine ever built (Figure 6).

An image of a colour photograph of the Saturn V rocket at the Kennedy Space Centre.
Figure 6 The Saturn V rocket and Apollo 11, Kennedy Space Center, Florida, USA, in 1969.

Between 1981 and 2011, NASA then sent astronauts to space using the Space Shuttle Program (Space Transportation System) (Figure 7).

An image of a colour photograph of the Space Shuttle Atlantis.
Figure 7 The last flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, 8 July 2011.

The Space Shuttle was invaluable in building the ISS and the Hubble Space Telescope. It flew for 135 missions and was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. Space Shuttles docked with the Russian Space Station, Mir, nine times and visited the ISS 37 times. A total of 355 people representing 16 countries flew on the Shuttle. Unfortunately, Challenger and Columbia had catastrophic accidents, leading to the deaths of 14 astronauts. Take a look at this full list of Space Shuttle missions [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Figure 8 shows the Space Shuttle launch profile as it lifts off and the external fuel tanks separate, returning to Earth. You will consider how recent developments have changed this ‘launch profile’ later in Week 8.

An image of the Space Shuttle launch profile.
Figure 8 Space Shuttle launch profile.

After the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the Soyuz rocket from the Russian Mission Control Centre in Kazakhstan (Figure 9) provided the only way to get to the ISS until 2020. From 2020, the Falcon 9 rocket provided by SpaceX allowed astronauts to be launched from the USA again.

An image of a colour photograph of the Expedition 33 Soyuz rocket launch.
Figure 9 Expedition 33 Soyuz launch, 23 October 2012.

How do all these rockets compare by size? You can see from Figure 10 that the new Starship Super Heavy rocket is the tallest with the old Saturn V rocket in third place.

An image is a line up of space rockets from the shortest on the left to the tallest on the right.
Figure 10 A comparison of the size of rockets to date.