Behind the scenes of shuttle ferry flight

September 25, 2009 7:16:01 PM PDT
For nearly three decades, the space shuttle has been the workhorse of the American space program, but now there are only six flights left. The end of the shuttle means the end of a reusable spacecraft that can launch, land and even ride piggyback on a 747. For the first time ever, NASA gave us unprecedented, exclusive access to the shuttle's inner workings. Eyewitness News Anchor Tom Abrahams flew with Discovery as it made its way from California back to Florida.

When NASA lands an orbiter in the California desert at Dryden Flight Research Center, its journey is far from over.

"There are enormous challenges," said NASA Research Pilot Charles Justiz.

Even before it lands, close to 100 people are on standby, just in case Florida is too dangerous.

"These guys get drug out here into the middle of the desert on short notice. They're working around the clock for seven days getting this thing ready to go," said Ferry Flight Manager Don McCormack.

Right now the orbiter is in what's called the mate/demate device. It'll be lifted about 60 feet off of the ground and then put on top of the 747 that will take it back to Florida.

The process of raising the orbiter, sliding in the 747, and then lowering it back onto the aircraft is a slow one. There are three points at which the orbiter is bolted to the back of the airplane. It's a process that has its origins long before shuttle Columbia took its first flight in 1981.

"We decided to take the engines off," said former NASA Engineer John Kiker.

When Kiker used models to show how an orbiter could be attached to the top of a much larger aircraft and flown back to the cape, it is an engineering feat.

"You think it's simple to fly on the back of a plane. But you're flying so low and so slow that you can't really get around weather like you can when you're in a commercial airliner flying around the country," said Launch Integration Manager Mike Moses.

This is inside the 747 that carries the orbiter. It's also called the SCA, the shuttle carrier aircraft. During the flight, only five people are on board: the crew, two pilots and three engineers. Nobody else comes on board.

The aircraft is reinforced to handle the extra weight of the orbiter. It is virtually stripped of everything else.

"Every single flight. Every time we learn something new about how to operate. The wealth of knowledge we get by flying repeatedly really you can't discount that," said Moses.

On this trip, we flew in a plane just ahead of the orbiter from southern California to Amarillo to Ft. Worth to Shreveport and then to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This is the first time NASA has ever allowed a television crew to document the cross country trek and the shuttle from this perspective.

"What an awesome sight. The main thing we think about is getting the vehicle back safely," said Discovery Flow Director Stephanie Stilson.

Each of the 54 flights from Dryden to Kennedy Space Center was different. The path depends on the weather. Because of its more than 24,000 fragile tiles, the orbiter cannot fly through clouds or rain or at night.

"I don't know if I've ever had one of these where the weather was a slam dunk easy thing to do," said McCormack.

And with just six shuttle missions left, there are fewer possibilities for these ferry flights. It is a reality slowly sinking in.

"It's been life for thousands and thousands of people. Both NASA personnel, contractors, lots of astronauts, lots of support people. It's just been a great program," said Henry Taylor, 747 Flight Engineer.

"It will be a sad day when Discovery is retired and has her final flight. But we are all very proud of what we do. Very proud of what the shuttle program has accomplished," said Stilson.

Finishing any orbital mission at Kennedy Space Center is always the preference for NASA. It's safer and cheaper, but they say there is something special about these ferry flights, and secretly they hope to get at least one more.

"We keep saying this could be the last one. But with six flights left you know, and with the weather how it is in Florida. You just never know," said Michael Mills.

Meaning that after the last mission is over, the journey wouldn't be just yet.

Each time NASA needs to ferry an orbiter to Florida from California it costs the agency approximately $1.8 million. The vast majority of that cost is fuel for the 747, which burns one gallon for every plane length it flies.

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