Spaceflight Now

Final space shuttle ferryflight to be completed Friday

Posted: September 20, 2012

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An aviation marvel since 1977 and a spectacle seen on 107 treks, the modified Boeing 747 jumbojet is hauling the the decommissioned orbiter Endeavour across the country this week on space shuttle era's final ferryflight.

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"It is going to emotional and hit people in different ways. This is a one-of-a-kind machine and to see the orbiter and SCA, it's a beautiful sight. It is going to be sad to know this is it," said Shuttle Carrier Aircraft flight engineer Henry Taylor said.

Headed from coast-to-coast piggyback-style, Endeavour left home at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday and flew to Houston for an overnight stay, then resumed the journey at dawn Thursday to refuel in El Paso before arriving at Edwards Air Force Base just after noon for a second overnight stop of the voyage to Los Angeles.

The duo took off from KSC's three-mile-long runway purposely built for space shuttle landings to begin the three-day, four-leg ferryflight weighing a combined 705,000 pounds.

"It is sort of shocking on the first try," SCA pilot Jeff Moultrie said of getting the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft airborne. "The biggest thing is the length of runway required to get it off."

Moultrie, 50, was flying the aircraft for Wednesday's initial takeoff and will be at the controls for the LAX landing Thursday. The former military pilot and Boeing instructor started at NASA's Langley Research Center 9 years ago, and circumstances and happenstance brought to him to the Johnson Space Center and a member of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft crew. He says he was simply at the right place at the right time to get the role of flying the final shuttle ferryflight.

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Despite the aircraft having a massive spaceship mounted on top, Moultrie says the flying qualities are not dramatically different than a normal 747.

"Once you are in the air, the handling characteristics are very similar to a 747 at those speeds, basically 250 knots," he said.

The plane does feel top heavy, the bank angles are limited to 20 degrees and the approach speeds are faster to compensate for the drag factor.

After getting to Los Angeles on Friday, technicians will go to work early Saturday to offload the shuttle onto an overland transporter.

This 747 will take its last flight on Sept. 26 for return to Edwards Air Force Base and its retirement from service, becoming a parts donor for NASA's SOFIA infrared observatory program that has a large telescope inside a 747.

"It is bittersweet. We are bringing Endeavour to a place where a lot of people will go see it, admire it and remember the good things we've done at NASA. But we're not done until we actually drop the shuttle off and then bring this plane back safely to Edwards," said Bill Rieke, another of the SCA pilots.

He has been a NASA pilot for 7 years and has flown several of the recent ferryflights.

"When they offered, I jumped at the chance. This is really special airplane to fly," he said.

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The idea of transporting the space shuttles on the back of a 747 has been a critical element of the spaceplanes' reusability concept. Delivering the orbiters from the birthplace factory in California to the Kennedy Space Center, shipping them home after landing at alternate sites, moving them for maintenance and modification periods, even taking the vehicles to special events like the Paris Air Show and World's Fair in New Orleans and now the museum trips, there have been 107 ferryflights since 1977.

The prototype Enterprise was used in 1977 for approach and landing test flights at Edwards Air Force Base, making five free-flights off of the 747 to demonstrate a shuttle's ability to perform a powerless touchdown on a runway.

"It is a very clever concept for transporting the space shuttle on the 747," said SCA flight engineer Gary Ash.

NASA-provided statistics break down the 107 ferryflights by shuttles:

  • Enterprise: 27
  • Columbia: 24
  • Challenger: 8
  • Discovery: 19
  • Atlantis: 18
  • Endeavour: 11

Friday's flight plan calls for takeoff from Edwards at 8:15 a.m. local time and head northbound for low-altitude flybys of the State Capitol in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area, including the Bay Area Discovery Museum, Chabot Space and Science Center, the Exploratorium, the Lawrence Hall of Science. Also on tap is the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The path then heads south to pass over NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, America's western launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory before heading into the Los Angeles basin.

The LA flyovers are expected any time after 11:30 a.m. local time to soar above such locations as the California Science Center, Disneyland, The Getty Center, Griffith Observatory, Malibu, the Queen Mary, Universal Studios and Venice Beach, among others.

Touchdown at Los Angeles International Airport for ceremonial reception will occur around 12:45 p.m. to finish up the era for space shuttle ferryflights.

"This last flight is exciting because a lot of the nation will get to see it. It is sad to see the end of the program. I'm not sure when it is going to hit me the hardest, when we get to LA or when we take the airplane back to Edwards," said Taylor, who plans to retire at the end of the year.