How much fuel does a rocket use at launch?

I frequently run across statements like:

“The Space Shuttle uses half its fuel just to get off the ground”
“The Space Shuttle uses 96.2% of its fuel to get one foot into the air”
“The Space Shuttle uses nearly all its fuel in the few seconds immediately after launch”

This does not seem reasonable to me. The solid rocket boosters, which provide a majority of the thrust to get into orbit, burn at what appears to be a pretty continuous rate for a good couple of minutes. Also, the acceleration of the shuttle must be more-or-less continuous since the crew experience a maximum of something around 4 or 5 Gs. If all the fuel got used up in the first few seconds, it would mean (a) most of it is wasted or (b) most of the energy to get to orbit is imparted in the first few seconds, neither of which is easy for me to believe.

Any ideas? I have a colleague who strenuously insists on this assertion because he has been using it in motivational seminars for years, so if I’m going to prove him wrong, I’ll need solid references. On the other hand, it’s possible I may owe him an apology. :slight_smile:


All I can do is agree with your impeccable logic. This article from howstuffworks describes the launch sequence. You can see that the main engines don’t even reach maximum thrust till T+60 seconds. I don’t know the thrust profile for the SRBs but they burn for 2 full minutes. And here’s another thought: if it takes that much fuel just to get off the ground, why not use an umbilical hose to supply the fuel for those few seconds?

I think the quotes are corrupted from Apollo-related information. It’s correct to say that the Saturn V used almost all the fuel “just to
get off the ground” (i.e. reach low earth orbit). Tell your colleage to use that as an example instead of the Shuttle. Also, I believe some ICBMs and sounding rockets do have very high and short-duration acceleration (over 100 Gs for a few seconds).

Oh, and welcome to the board!

You can learn quite a bit from NASA, rather than an unattributed source …



You may want to suggest to your colleague that they check their “facts” with NASA.

Your colleague owes you an apology.


If it used so much fuel to get 1 foot up, I’d make the launchpad 2 feet higher. Duh.