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“NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft – the Titans of the Space Shuttle Program” PART I

By Suresh A. Atapattu
November 20, 2012

On the afternoon of December 12th, 2008, the inhabitants around the NASA-Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Merritt Island, Florida were treated to the relatively rare sight of a gleaming white and grey Boeing 747 accentuated with a blue cheat line flying slowly.

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Photo © Suresh A. Atapattu

Picture 1: N911NA and Endeavour over Florida for the last time. Endeavour's last trip to retirement was on N905NA

However, this was no ordinary passenger aircraft and it stood out from the steady stream of airliners destined to the Orlando International Airport. This 747 was bearing a space shuttle orbiter, precariously bolted on to her upper fuselage. It was an unmistakable sight due to the large size and unusual shape of the combined duo accompanied by the sounds of four P&W JT9D-7J turbofans acting in unison. Their arrival in the skies above the Treasure Coast of Florida was not a surprise as it was expected despite the usual secrecy associated with the exact routing of operational space shuttle orbiters returning on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA). Neither was it a treat reserved only for the eyes of the locals, tourists on the Treasure Coast beaches, at the KSC Visitor Center and those embarking on cruise ships at the Port of Cape Canaveral also frantically scurried to get to better vantage points.

On this day, the space shuttle “Endeavour” – the youngest star of the space shuttle fleet- was returning home, fresh from her last mission. It was 28 days after her launch on STS-126 to the International Space Station (ISS) from shuttle launch pad LC-39A at KSC. At the end of the 15 day STS-126 mission, “Endeavour” had to land at Edward’s Air Force Base in California due to the weather at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) being out of normal landing specifications. This decision setup the last cross-country ferry flight of NASA’s second SCA N911NA with Endeavour. The same SCA had brought the brand new Endeavour from her factory in California to KSC on her maiden ferry flight in 1991.

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Photo © Brian Lockett

Picture 2: NASA 911 departs Edwards with Endeavour on the cross country ferry on December 10,2008.

Using the call sign “NASA911”, the SCA routing from Edwards had the duo stopping over at El Paso (Texas), Ft. Worth (Texas), Barksdale (Louisiana) before reaching KSC on a warm Friday afternoon.

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Photo © Tristan Van Der Vlugt

Picture 3: NASA 911 arrives at NAS Fort Worth JRB. with Endeavour on the cross country ferry on December 10,2008.

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Photo © Brandon Thetford

Picture 4: NASA 911 departs NAS Fort Worth JRB. with Endeavour on the cross country ferry on December 11,2008.

Operational security meant that the exact routing was kept secret and the overnight stops were reserved to military bases. Despite attempts to maintain operational security, NASA realized very early in the program that a 747 with an orbiter stacked on top is a hard secret to keep hidden. Larry LaRose, a flight engineer on the SCA, admitted to the NASA press affairs office that "You don't sneak into town with an orbiter! It brings out a big crowd everywhere we go. It's a life experience for a lot of folks who have never seen something like this before."

On this particular flight, a special deviation of the flight plan in Texas allowed her to sidetrack to the south and perform a flyby of Ellington Field (EFD) and the NASA -Johnson Space Center (JSC) just south of Houston, Texas. JSC is the home of mission control and EFD is the home airport of the NASA astronauts who are based out of JSC. The workers and the greater Houston area public were treated to the sight that was soon to be repeated in Florida -last time for N911NA. This was one last bow towards the NASA workers and the towns that had supported the STS program over its lifetime.

This multiple stop trip was necessary due to the 1000-mile SCA range restriction and the need for good weather along the route. It is also speed limited to less than 250 knots. Large warning signs reinforcing the speed limit are placed near the control column on the dashboard of the SCAs. Preceding the SCA was a USAF C-17 aircraft acting as the “pathfinder” weather scout. Using the call sign “NASA912”, the aircraft flew approximately 100 miles ahead of the SCA and reported back the real time weather to the SCA crew. NASA912 was carrying weather officers and Space Shuttle support personnel from KSC who had helped support her landing and placement on the SCA at Edwards. Also onboard was an experienced SCA pilot, whose expertise helps the ferry flight crew keep to the safest route.

Operational constraints limited flight to daylight hours with takeoff occurring only 20 minutes before sunrise and landing 20 minutes after sunset. Encounters with rain during the flight were not permitted. This was because the thermal blankets that lined the orbiter’s fuselage would absorb water thus affecting the center of gravity of the delicate balance. At least once in the recent past, water collected in the aft compartment of an orbiter due to a rainstorm at Edwards thus adding thousands of pounds of extra weight. Also, the thermal protection system tiles that are integral to the re-entry of the orbiter into the Earth’s atmosphere were shown to be at risk for damage from rain during flight and would severely impact the processing of the orbiter for the next mission.

In Florida, this unusual sight was hard to miss given the large size of the aircraft/spacecraft combination in the blue Florida sky slowly flying in a gracious and prolonged photo opportunity. It appeared that she had no intention of coming back down to terra firma.

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Photo © Suresh A. Atapattu

Picture 5:NASA 911 on her tour of the area around KSC one the last ferry flight of an operational Endeavour on December 12,2008

Due to extensive media coverage, large numbers of people spontaneously gathered in parking lots, roadsides and outside workplaces anxiously scanning the sky to catch a glimpse. An unofficial countdown to the sighting of the large identified flying object took place over the commercial radio airwaves.

The special circular flight path covered all the compass points surrounding the 15,000-foot Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at KSC. The City of Titusville bordering the west of KSC was the first to see the SCA, then Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral. Turning toward KSC, she locked on to her pathfinder aircraft while the C-17 made a straight in visual approach to runway 33 for a full stop landing. Next in line was the SCA, Endeavour on her high perch and seemingly enjoying the ride, which made the approach with her landing gear up. It was quite clear this was also going to be a victory lap for NASA911- it would be her last ferry flight of Endeavour. Perfectly aligned with runway 33, she executed a flyby at 250 feet. Low and slow, she gracefully passed the assembled cheering crowd of NASA workers and then climbed out into a slow-very slow- left hand turn.

On the second approach, the gear came down and her main gear touched the special grooved surface of the SLF with a hint of rubber smoke. She reversed engines as she passed the midpoint and the spectators. With 15000 feet of total runway available, she came to a full stop with plenty of room to spare. It was a gracefully and textbook perfect landing that seemed oddly anticlimactic despite the obvious complexity of this operation. The flawless landing was a testament to the fantastic airmanship and professionalism of the SCA crew.

Since the SLF does not have a taxiway, she turned on the runway (SLF runway width of 300 feet enables this to be carried out) to backtrack to the mate/demate device that is located on the ramp at the south eastern end of the runway. The spectators which included astronauts slated to crew the next space shuttle mission of Endeavour were thrilled to have her back home. Among the spectators was astronaut Captain Alan “Dex” Pointdexter (STS-122 -pilot,STS-131-commander) with his Nikon camera busy snapping away pictures of the landing just like all the other gleeful audience members. Such was the “star power” of the SCA and orbiter combo, even on astronauts!

The successful completion of this last ferry flight was just like the previous 65 completed by N911NA. She amassed 33,004.1 flight hours over more than a 38-year flying career with, both, Japan Air Lines and NASA. That includes 386 flights after it was converted to a shuttle carrier aircraft in 1989, including 66 flights carrying a space shuttle on a ferry flight. It may have been uneventful for the crew of the SCA but this was not the case for the hundreds of thousands of spectators who witnessed the three day cross country odyssey. It was a sight that made spectators pause to take in the sight and one that would remain in their memories for a long time. This spectacular sight was by no means new. It was a sight as old as the first prototype orbiter OV-101 better known as "Enterprise" (or her originally planned name "Constitution").

While the Space Shuttle obiters have garnered all the public attention and imagination, the SCA is and was a fundamental part of the Space Transport System (STS) program. It played a key role in the design and the operation of the orbiters. The SCA is akin to the proverbial Greek mythological Titan, Atlas, on whose shoulders the celestial spheres rested upon. It is on the shoulders of the SCA that the STS (also known as the Shuttle) Program was built upon. Specifically, the SCA was one of the first major components bought by NASA and configured to carry out the critical testing of the prototype orbiter, Enterprise, during the hypercritical Approach and Landing Tests (ALT). The 9-month ALT program was conducted from February through November 1977 at Dryden and demonstrated the orbiter could fly in the atmosphere and land like an airplane except without power, a gliding flight. The ALT program involved ground test and flights.

This prototype testing enabled the proof of concept and the final design of the flown orbiters. After which-for the next 35+ years- the SCA have shouldered the burden of the space orbiters. Even with the official end of the STS program occurring a month and a half after wheels stop of Space Shuttle “Atlantis” on STS-135 (August 31, 2011), the SCA was tasked with the delivery of the orbiters to their final resting places. Indeed, the SCA have been the singular longest serving major support vehicle to the STS program. In a joking manner, it has often been mentioned in popular aviation circles that the robust McDonald DC-9 aircraft will live forever and will be there to fly back home the crews of more recent airliners relegated to the aircraft bone yards of Arizona. Similarly, it could be accurately said that when the last shuttle (Endeavour) was delivered to the museum away from KSC (to Los Angeles Science Center), the oldest SCA (N905NA) that started it all also ended the program! It also continues to fly at press time with a recent flight to Ellington Field in Houston,Texas in October 2012.

To be continued...

Written by
Suresh A. Atapattu

Suresh A. Atapattu is a biomedical engineer specializing in cardiology. He has had a longstanding research interest in the functioning of the human physiology in spaceflight. He was given unprecedented access and permission by NASA to document Space Shuttle processing at the Kennedy Space Center over the last decade of operations including the retirement and placement in museums. Some of his NASA photography can be seen at his website at http://www.atapattu.net or here at Airliners.net http://tinyurl.com/d7mrsa2

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