Spaceflight Now: Orbiter Overhaul

Birthplace of the shuttle

Posted: April 14, 2000

Tile work
Shuttle Endeavour rolls out of the shuttle assembly plant in 1991 as seen in top photo. Boeing worker Melody Brooks, in bottom view, installs a tile on Columbia's body flap last month in the same building where all the shuttles were put together. Photos: NASA and Spaceflight Now
Boeing has 885 people in Palmdale these days, working on Columbia, space station parts and other programs. In the 1980s during the hay-day of space shuttle building, there were 1,700.

Melody Brooks has been around for it all, helping assembly every space shuttle and now tunes them up during the occasional maintenance periods.

"They are like your children because you get to know a lot about them when they are home, the attitudes and quarks of each shuttle," Brooks says.

"This is not like Jiffy Lube," Hoffman jokes, having joined the shuttle world in the early 90s when Endeavour was coming together. "My job is not boring."

NASA picked the Palmdale area in 1972 to become the birthplace of the space shuttle given its close location to Edwards Air Force Base and the talent pool of aerospace workers.

The U.S. Air Force Plant 42 in California's high desert was selected for the shuttle work, which has been used previously for military aircraft development work.

The shuttles were built and are now serviced in the plant's mammoth Building 150, which can hold two vehicles simultaneously. Part of the building's roof was raised for the shuttles' tails, dubbed the "doghouse."

Once the shuttles were finished, they were towed through the nearby town of Lancaster to Edwards for transport to Florida.

Mate/Demate Device
Columbia in the lifting device at Palmdale after arrival last fall atop the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Photo: William G. Hartenstein
Today, a lifting crane has been added to the Plant 42 scene, allowing the ferry-flights to depart and arrive at Palmdale.

Periodically, NASA debates whether to transfer the maintenance work from Palmdale to Kennedy Space Center, saving the approximate $2 million it costs and the risks of shipping the shuttles across the country.

But not so long ago, the issue was put to rest, for the moment anyway, to keep the servicing work in Palmdale.

"Here is it offline and out of the way. At KSC, they can focus on launch processing," Hoffman says.

Officials have discussed the possibility of landing a space shuttle at Palmdale at the start of a modification period, avoiding the ferrying from Florida. Astronauts and safety authorities gave approval and the site's 15,000-foot long runway is capable. But for now there are no plans to end a shuttle mission at Palmdale.

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Columbia VR
Step aboard the space shuttle Columbia for a virtual reality tour of the spaceship midway through its maintenance and modification period.

Report contents
Spaceship dry-docked

Tip to tail checkout

Mired in wire

21st-century cockpit

Midlife makeover

Columbia weight loss plan

Finishing the job

Flying into the future

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