Space Shuttle Carrier Aircraft Ride Into Retirement
“The two planes have made their home at Edwards Air Force Base in California since the inception of the Space Shuttle program.”
The end of the Space Shuttle program means not only the retirement of the shuttles themselves, the workhorses of America’s space program since 1981, but also of the two modified 747 Space Shuttle Carriers that have been their terrestrial transports since the program began with atmospheric tests of Enterprise in 1977.
The two planes have made their home at Edwards Air Force Base, specifically the Dryden Flight Research Center at the north of the base, in California since the inception of the Space Shuttle program. Edwards served as the primary landing site throughout the eighties, beginning with the first landing of Columbia in 1981, but was demoted to a backup site in 1991 due to the cost of ferrying the shuttles back to the Kennedy Space Center. If and when a shuttle landed at the California site, one of the two 747s would visit the mate/de-mate structure at the base, have the shuttle lowered on top of it, and fly it back to Florida where it would await its next mission. The planes were also prepared to retrieve the shuttle from emergency landing sites around the world.
One of the planes was retired in February 2012, while the remaining one is set to go after Endeavour is delivered to her final home in California after a nationwide tour. The remaining plane is the older one, built in the early seventies and relatively unchanged since receiving the customization required to haul an 86-ton spacecraft across the United States on a fairly regular basis. The newer plane was purchased in 1988 and put into service in 1990.
Along with the planes themselves, their maintenance and flight crews will need to find new ways to contribute to the space program. Many of the NASA employees directly involved with the shuttle program have been laid off since the end of the shuttle program. Some of the staff involved with the carrier planes are still working, preparing the remaining plane for its final flight. Some of the crew have been working with the planes since their first flights in the late seventies. Of note is the crew’s famous sense of humor, exemplified by the text on the planes’ rear mount points reading “ATTACH ORBITER HERE” and “NOTE: BLACK SIDE DOWN.”
The Shuttle Carrier’s mission will end after dropping off Endeavour at LAX in October. While the Shuttle gets paraded around town before settling in at her new home at the California Science Center on October 13, the Carrier will make her way toward Palmdale, California for decommissioning. The plane, like its twin, will be used as a source of spare parts for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
Two other veterans of the space program, the massive Crawler-transporters, will remain in service despite the end of the shuttle program. In use since the Apollo missions, these tremendously huge ground transports—the largest self-propelled vehicles in the world, in fact—are being upgraded in order to provide service to the new Ares V rockets and their launch towers. These upgrades will, among other things, allowing the crawlers to carry another 6 million pounds of rocket to the launch pad from the Vehicle Assembly Building.