The shuttle does require help getting off the ground. It rides a rocket when it's heading into outer space. And when it needs to make an aerial transit here in the earthly realm, it relies on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.
Actually, there are two of the shuttle-toting aircraft, both of them modified Boeing 747 jumbo jets that once served as commercial carriers. Here, in September 2009 following a mission to the International Space Station, one of the jets ferries the shuttle Discovery--which just yesterday lifted off on its final mission--from its landing strip at Edwards Air Force Base in California back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The space shuttles measure 57 feet tall and 122 feet long, with a wingspan of 78 feet. The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, by contrast, is 63 feet tall and 232 feet long, with a wingspan of 196 feet.
The typical cruising speed for the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft is about 250 knots, according to NASA, and the typical cruising altitude with the spacecraft attached is about 13,000 to 15,000 feet, with a range of roughly 1,000 nautical miles.
Flying the tandem arrangement is no easy feat; extra attention, for instance, has to be paid during takeoff and in-flight turns. "It's obvious [the orbiter] is up there, because there's a constant rumble that you can feel because of the wake of the orbiter hitting the vertical stabilizer of the 747," SCA pilot Gordon Fullerton said in a NASA article from 2005. But otherwise, he said, "it handles remarkably the same" as an unencumbered 747.
"It's brute force that keeps us flying," Larry LaRose, an SCA flight engineer, said in the 2005 NASA article. "When we're carrying an orbiter, we have to use twice the power and a lot more fuel to maintain flight."
If you'll bear with us, though, there is a tenuous connection between star and spacecraft. Nearly 20 years later, Eastwood directed and starred in the adventure movie "Space Cowboys," a story in which aging astronauts fly a mission in a space shuttle.