Exclusive access to shuttle's ferry flight

September 25, 2009 7:11:51 PM PDT
There are perhaps three iconic images of the space shuttle -- liftoff with the external tanks attached; landing as a glider on a runway; and flying atop a 747 on its way from California to Florida on what's called a ferry flight. For the first time in the history of the shuttle program, NASA allowed a television crew to follow a ferry flight from coast to coast and gave Eyewitness News unprecedented access. In the middle of Mojave Desert, in the place where man first broke the sound barrier, a team of more than 200 people is preparing Discovery for its next flight.

Ferry Flight Manager Don McCormack said, "The processing out here is about seven days."

Around the clock they work to put the 125 ton orbiter on top of an airplane and ferry it piggyback to Florida.

"It's a spectacular sight," said Launch Integration Manager Mike Moses. "The engineering is just a marvel."

This is the 54th time an orbiter has landed at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California.

"We never really anticipate that we are going to land out west," said Discovery Flow Director Stephanie Stilson. "But weather being the way it is in Florida, a lot of times it does happen."

This is the first time NASA has allowed a television crew to document what happens from the inside. From underneath the shuttle you can actually see the precision with which it's built. Each of these tiles is individually numbered because each of them is different. The darker ones are the newer ones. The gray ones are older. You can even see some damage from this most recent flight.

We're told the most challenging part of getting the orbiter ready for its ferry flight back to Florida is attaching the tail cone. It serves a couple of functions. Not only is it aerodynamic for when the orbiter is on top of the 747, but it also protects the main engines. The shuttle sits for close to week in what's called a mate/de-mate device, sitting some 20 feet off of the ground.

"It probably looks pretty easy. Not to make it sound like a bigger deal than it is, but it's challenging," said McCormack. "We want to get it back quickly, but we want to get it back in good condition. We want to get it back safely."

When it's ready, the orbiter is lifted to 60 feet in the air. It's a process that takes about a half hour. Then the modified 747 is slowly moved into place and the orbiter is lowered onto three attachment points. It takes up to six hours to finish the connection.

Moses said, "We're very careful with what we do and it's amazing to watch it happen when it does."

Once the orbiter is ready, teams of NASA managers, pilots, contractors and meteorologists from Florida, Texas and California conference to plan the ferry flight. It's called the flight readiness review. The biggest concern with any ferry flight is always the weather.

"There are some very strict weather criteria that are not normal," US Air Force Meteorologist Major Chris Lovett said. "They cannot fly through any visible moisture, which is they cannot fly through any clouds at all."

Once the weather is clear, the orbiter and the 747 can take off, led in the air by a smaller military plane called the pathfinder. NASA Convoy Commander Dean Schaff said, "We kind of pick our way through about 20 minutes ahead of the shuttle so we can better pick our way through moisture and turbulence along the route."

The crews of both aircraft are highly skilled, flying at half the altitude of commercial flights.

"The 747 is actually a very easy airplane to fly. Then, of course, you put the orbiter on there. It's not so easy anymore," said NASA Research Pilot Charles Justiz. "It shakes like crazy."

The trip takes at minimum two days with at least three stops between California and Florida. At each one the orbiter is checked and rechecked.

Schaff said, "We've got meters and instruments that we can see if there are any leaks. We look over the tile, the thermal protection system, to see if there's anything that has come loose."

At each stop security is paramount. Most layovers are at military bases.

"They all have good certifications with long weapons and short weapons," said Michael Mills in security. "They always usually have enough people on hand so we don't have to beg, borrow and steal."

It is no easy task getting to Florida. It's almost harder from California than it is from orbit. The price tag is roughly $1.8 million. The risk to the shuttle is great. But 54 times they've done it. This, with the end of the shuttle program in sight, might have been the last.

Discovery is already in the orbiter processing facility at Kennedy Space Center. NASA crews are preparing it for its next mission just three months from now.

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