Education Technology

NASA - Space Shuttle Ascent

Activity Overview

This activity will engage students in a space shuttle launch and introduce them to the different events that take place during the space shuttle's ascent into space.


Students will:

  • create and analyze scatter plots given a table
  • find regression functions using a graphing technology
  • apply the first derivative test to find local extreme
  • find inflection points to analyze the concavity of a function
  • make connections to real world problems

About the Lesson

The ascent process begins with the liftoff from the launch pad. Propellant is being burned from the Solid Rocket Boosters, or SRB, and the external tank, or ET, causing the space shuttle to accelerate very quickly. This high-rate of acceleration as the space shuttle launches through the Earth’s atmosphere causes a rapid increase in dynamic pressure, known as Q in aeronautics. The structure of the space shuttle can only withstand a certain level of dynamic pressure (critical Q) before it suffers damage. Before this critical level is reached, the engines of the space shuttle are throttled down to about 70%. At about one minute after launch the dynamic pressure reaches its maximum level (max Q). The air density then drops rapidly due to the thinning atmosphere and the space shuttle can be throttled to full power without fear of structural damage.

At about 2 minutes after launch, the atmosphere is so thin that the dynamic pressure drops down to zero. The SRB, having used their propellant, are commanded by the space shuttle's onboard computer to separate from the external tank. The jettison of the booster rockets marks the end of the first ascent stage and the beginning of the second.

As we look to the future of space exploration, the ascent stage will remain a critical part of any successful mission.