Lessons Learned from an RC Space Shuttle Project

by FliteTest | June 18, 2019 | (9) Posted in Projects

I've been working on an ambitious model rocket Space Shuttle. Here's what I took away from the experience. 

Here at Flite Test, we love an ambitious project. Over the years, you'll probably have seen dozens of absolutely crazy builds on our main channel, such as our latest Airsoft Battleship Vs. RC Divebombers. Inspired by the Space Shuttle program, I've been making an independent project to launch a rocket-powered Space Shuttle, detach a shuttle glider, and return it safely to the earth. Here's what I learned. 

Firstly, what happened:

If you'd like to see the video of the actual launch attempts watch the 'Part 4' video here. As a brief summary, the three attempts were made to launch this model space shuttle. The first and second failed on the same day due to a wiring issue. Embarrassingly only the small c-sized Estes rocket motor in the shuttle ignited. The larger d-sized rocket motor in the booster failed as the igniter shorted out on both occasions.

The third and final attempt saw both motors fire and the rocket took flight, however, not all went to plan. Due to a lack of aerodynamic stability, the Space Shuttle arced over and crashed into the ground. Fail. Although the rocket should have been aerodynamically stable, a lack of airspeed meant the fins simply couldn't keep the thing pointing skyward. Here's what the whole project experience has taught me. 

1) Space Shuttles are complicated

Yep, no kidding. Everyone interested in space and spaceflight knows the real Space Shuttle was a hideously complex machine. Even boiled down to approximate model form, there's still a lot that's going on and a lot of pieces to go wrong. To demonstrate here are some things to consider when building your own shuttle: 

  • Off center thrust line
  • Shuttle release mechanism 
  • Aerodynamic inbalance 
  • Ignition of multiple rocket motors
  • Parachute for the booster and SRBs
  • Suitable launch rig
  • Shuttle glide characteristics

And that's just for starters. I knew this was going to be a demanding project, but the amount of work that ended up going into it really did confirm that. 

2) Start simple then work your way up to bigger things

This is quite obvious, but the Space Shuttle project did show that building up towards bigger and more complicated model airplane projects is the way to go, rather than diving straight into something beyond you. Don't build a Space Shuttle if you've never built a Simple Cub (or something like that). I think this project was right at the edge of my capabilities right now; a few years ago, there'd be no chance I could have pulled this off, but in a years time I may be even better set for another go. 

As many things as possible were simplified, such as the design of the foam board RC shuttle glider. 

The number of things I needed to build or acquire for the project was more than I wanted. The thing is, this was a model rocket + RC plane combo! This means that you need RC batteries, rocket engines, a launch pad, launch controller, launch controller batteries, RX transmitter and more. Needless to say, there's a lot to think about. 

Most of the stuff needed at the launch.

3) Test as you go

Throughout the Space Shuttle project, I tested different parts of the mission. The great thing about this is that early successes can be celebrated and potential problems addressed. For example, the orbiter itself was designed and tested in part 1 to see if it flew with good stability. Next, in part 2 it was dropped from an RC plane to see if it flew from high altitude. It's great to do this to keep motivated and I recommend it. 

The plans I used to design the shuttle. Yep, this is the USSR's Buran, but it's pretty much the same spacecraft. 

4) Failure sucks (but you should probably keep going)

As mentioned, this Space Shuttle didn't make it very far - but that's alright. Thing is, I know that (although one thing went majorly wrong), many things went right and I can try again. If you've got a project that didn't quite work, find out what went wrong and move forward. It might be worth putting in some more hours to get across the finish line. 

Not an ideal result, but that's fine if something was learned.

Watch the whole series:

If you want to see this project in its entirety, check out these four videos.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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Article by James Whomsley

Editor of FliteTest.com

Contact: james@flitetest.com

YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/projectairaviation 


NYCBobby on June 21, 2019
James, great article and great project. I know it's a lot of work but you might reconsider closeting it and do a re-design. It would be so epic to see it work and I know you could pull it off. But I know how these projects can suck you dry. Anyway, it was a fantastic effort. Keep up the great content.
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Lessons Learned from an RC Space Shuttle Project