NASA Contractor tells why the Space Shuttle smelled quite bad when ground crews got aboard after a flight to clean and unload

The Space Transportation System

The Space Transportation System (STS) is the formal name of NASA’s Space Shuttle, consisting of an aircraft-like orbiter, two boosters and a huge external tank.

The stack, as the composite of orbiter, tank and boosters is called, has a gross liftoff weight of 2000 tonnes. Its height is 56 m and the boosters with the three Space Shuttle Main Engines generate 30.16 MN of thrust.

The space shuttle began its flight career with Columbia roaring off Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Apr. 12, 1981. Atlantis flew the final space mission, STS-135, in July 2011. Shuttle was able to loft about 24 tonnes of cargo to low orbit and transport typically seven astronauts.

The Orbiter was about the size of an Airbus A320 airliner, but sported the double-delta wings of a fighter. It had a crew compartment in the nose section, followed by a large payload bay and finally three main rocket engines in the aft fuselage.

The Orbiter structure was primarily aluminum alloy, with the engine structure primarily titanium alloy. The whole underbelly was covered by ceramic tiles protecting the Orbiter from the extreme heating of reentry. Each orbital vehicle was designed for 100 flights.

The Space Shuttle smelled quite bad

But is true that the Space Shuttle smelled quite bad when ground crews got aboard after a flight to clean and unload?

‘The answer to this question is a ‘YES!’ in all capital letters!’ Explains Dave Mohr, a NASA contractor, on Quora.

‘After landing, the operating capacity of the Environmental Control System was somewhat reduced by virtue of the vehicle no longer being in a vacuum. This reduced the effectiveness of the conditioning (and odor removal) of the cabin air.

‘All ‘fresh food’ and ‘wet trash’ stored in the vehicle (as well as other things) began to get pretty rank after a while.

‘In the cases that I am aware of the vehicle was completely powered down somewhere between 45 min and 1 hour after landing, due to exhaustion of the onboard coolant working fluid (ammonia). [The environmental system was run until ammonia was depleted. It did not interfere with the ability to detect hydrazine, as this detection was done by inserting a probe up into the throat of each thruster. The ammonia boiler would not have interfered with that. Having said that, the vehicle only had something like 1/2 hour of Ammonia remaining after coming to a stop on a typical landing.]’

Mohr concludes;

‘The stagnant air in the crew module was in really bad shape before very long.’

Space Shuttle Discovery being prepared after landing for crew disembarkment

Photo credit: Carla Thomas, NASA

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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