The game casts the player as a member of the NASA Space Shuttle crew, participating in a mission to an orbiting space station. Hit the dropdown target in front of the Shuttle for entry, then shoot the ball up the ramp to get the current Stop & Score value. Hit the right ramp to change the Liftoff bonus, then spell SHUTTLE to collect it. For more points, dock pinballs into the saucers on either side of the playfield, open the Airlock, raise the Heat Shield, then enter the Shuttle for multiball.
Space Shuttle is noteworthy for being the first pinball game with a playfield toy, a scale model of the Shuttle licensed from NASA. This was an attention-grabbing extravagance at the time, as the pinball industry was releasing simpler titles to counter declining sales from the rising popularity of Video Games. The game's fast action and theme rode the public's excitement for the Real Life Shuttle to become the best-selling pinball of 1984 by far, with over 7,000 units sold. It is credited with saving Williams from near-bankruptcy and renewing public interest in pinball, and is recognized as a classic landmark title today.
In 1987, Williams released Space Station, widely considered to be an unofficial sequel to Space Shuttle. It features a second set of "STATION" spot targets that scores its own independently-cycling value and retains the Stop-N-Score feature while also featuring a mini upper playfield near the pop bumpers and a rotating space station toy used to direct balls towards the locks.
A digital version was available for The Pinball Arcade until the WMS license expired on July 1, 2018.
The Space Shuttle pinball demonstrates the following tropes:
- Alliterative Title
- Anti-Frustration Features: The Heat Shield, a plastic stopper between the flippers that rises up for a few seconds to prevent ball drains at the start of multiball. Then there's the Airlock, a gate on the right outlane that saves drains.Mission Control: "Airlock open."
- Developers' Foresight: If the ball drains before the multiball launch countdown ends, Mision Control will say, "Abort liftoff," and the locked balls will still be held for the next ball to retrigger multiball (provided there is still balls left).
- Early-Bird Cameo: The playfield shows two astronauts installing an orbital telescope, six years before the Hubble Space Telescope was deployed.
- Machine Monotone: Mission Control.
- Match Sequence: A pair of rapidly-changing digits chase each other across the various score displays, eventually settling down inside the "Match" display.
- Mission Control
- Off-Model: The playfield Space Shuttle toy is missing its tailfin, in order to get it to fit inside the cabinet.
- Shout-Out: The Shuttle is named "Defender", after Williams' popular video game.
- Space Is Noisy: The game includes a standard litany of rockets, beeps, and explosions, as well as an oscillation background sound.
- Space Station: The lower playfield is dominated by the massive "Space Shuttle Defender Star Base", while the bumpers in the upper-left corner are connected to form a smaller cluster.
- Spelling Bonus: U-S-A increases the bonus multiplier up to 7X, and S-H-U-T-T-L-E rewards the current Liftoff value.
- Spiritual Successor: 1987's Space Station is this, if not an outright sequel.
- Stock Sound Effects: Most of the sounds come from Williams' signature sound effects library—in fact, Space Shuttle uses sounds from the earlier Gorgar pinball and the video games Defender and Joust.
- Timed Mission: The timed dropdown target in front of the Shuttle ramp, along with the "Stop & Score".