Inside the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
Space fans worldwide watched with somber nostalgia as the space shuttle Endeavour made its final journey last week, a ferried ride to Los Angeles aboard its modified 747 carrier aircraft. We were treated to stunning video of its flight over LA and elsewhere, and even some great shots from here in Austin. The shuttle was rightly hogging the spotlight, but we should pay some respect to the Atlases that carried the shuttles on their shoulders: The 747 carrier aircraft.
In 1974, soon after the design for the shuttle orbiter began to take shape, NASA purchased a 747 from American Airlines and began extensively modifying it so that it could support external cargo. The inner fuselage was essentially stripped bare, except for a few seats in the old first class cabin, and the body was reinforced with additional struts in order to support the weight of the shuttle. Early tests of the shuttle’s glider landing capabilities were done with using this plane, which still bore American Airlines’ red, white and blue stripes until the 1980’s. The flight range was reduced to only about a thousand miles since it’s carrying a freakin’ shuttle on its back, but for some reason aerial refueling capability was never added. Nonetheless, NASA was able to tour the shuttle through Europe in 1983 using a hop-across-the-Atlantic path from Canada to Iceland to the U.K.
After fabrication, new shuttles were delivered to Kennedy Space Center aboard the back of this craft. It was also used to ferry shuttles back to Florida if they were forced to use the alternate landing sites at Edwards Air Force Base and White Sands Test Range. A second 747 was added to the fleet in the 1980’s.
It was customary to paint a record of the carrier’s missions on the side of the craft, as seen above. But my favorite piece of shuttle carrier trivia? If you check out the picture of the mounting point above, you’ll notice that some jokester engineers took a moment to remind NASA crews that the black side of the shuttle goes down. Glad they cleared that up!
These 747s are among NASA’s longest serving aircraft, and the delivery of Endeavour to Los Angeles marks their last time carrying a shuttle (Discovery will be rolled to her eventual museum home at Kennedy Space Center). They’ll eventually be sacrificed for parts to repair NASA’s SOFIA 747-mounted observatory.
Like the black-clad stage hands that allow the stars to shine in the limelight, we couldn’t have done it without them.
(Photos via NASA, Wikipedia, Graham Martin and Julian Leek. Check out their full photo feature at AmericaSpace)