space shuttle landings

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Via David Peterson

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OTV-4 mission concludes as X-37 returns to Earth.

After nearly two years in space, the U.S. Air Force’s classified space shuttle, the Orbital Test Vehicle X-37B, returned to Earth, landing on Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility runway shortly before 8am EDT. 

Officially known as the AFSPC-5 mission, OTV-4 launched on May 20, 2015, atop an Atlas V rocket. That same rocket also lifted the Planetary Society’s solar sailing cubesat, LightSail-1 into orbit on its own groundbreaking mission. Spending over 717 days in space, the OTV-4 mission is the longest mission thus far of the program’s four flights.

Measuring 29 feet long with a wingspan of 15 feet, the X-37B is a robotic spaceplane with a payload bay ideal for small payloads. While the specific milestones for this flight were classified, at least two of the experiments included the testing of an electric engine and materials exposure pallets.

The first three flights of the OTV program landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, though OTV-4 became the first to land in Florida. By landing at the same spaceport which it left from, OTV operations are expected to streamline and potentially allow for faster times in between missions. One of Kennedy’s three Orbiter Processing Facilities is used by the Air Force to house the two X-37 spaceplanes in between missions.

As seen in the gifs above - taken from video of the vehicle’s landing - the spaceplane glides past a model of another famous space plane, the Space Shuttle. The Inspiration, which once sat outside the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, was moved to the SLF for restoration ahead of a nationwide tour promoting aerospace science and STEM fields.

See our coverage of the AFSPC-5 mission here.

P/C: USAF.

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     When people hear the phrase “most magical place on earth”, their thoughts instantly drift to The Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I may be a sucker for “Disney magic”, but when I hear that phrase, I think of a location about an hour east of Orlando; a place where my dreams come true called NASA Kennedy Space Center. This photoset displays key infrastructure used to support iconic Apollo and Space Shuttle programs that operated from this location.      Photos One, Two & Three: The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is the largest single story building in the world. The building consists of four “high bays”, each with its own hangar door, which are the largest doors in the world. In the first photo, High Bay Three is open. The area inside is so large that it often creates fog near the top of the high bays. If the air conditioning quits, it actually rains inside the building. The VAB was constructed in 1966 for the purpose of assembling Saturn V rockets and was later used to assemble Space Shuttle components until 2011. Now, this building will be used to assemble the new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, along with multiple launch vehicles for different private and commercial space companies. The first photo shows Launch Control in the foreground, attached to the VAB. You can see inside of Firing Room 4 at Launch Control in my previous article (click here to view).      Photo Four: Space shuttle orbiters are essentially a pickup truck. If you have a big pickup, it’s nice to have a big garage. This is where the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) comes in. After flight, the shuttle orbiters were transported to one of three OPF buildings. There, they would be inspected and refurbished with no nut or bolt untouched. After every mission, the Main Engines and Orbiter Maneuvering System Pods were replaced. Any hardware needed for the next mission was installed and the orbiter would be rolled to the VAB, where it would be mated to the entire shuttle stack. OPF buildings 1 and 2 now house the Air Force operated Boeing X-37B space planes. OPF 3 contains Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft, which will be used as a taxi to the International Space Station.      Photo Five: The Crawler-Transporters, a pair of 6,000,000 lb tractors, were constructed to move the Saturn V rocket from the VAB to their launch pads. These vehicles have also transported every space shuttle. To move a rocket, the crawler positions itself under a mobile launch platform on which the launch vehicle rests. The platform is lifted atop the crawler, then transported to the pad where the crawler sets it down. The crawler then moves out from under the mobile launch platform, retreating to a safe distance away from the launch. After launch, the crawler must retrieve the mobile launch platform, bringing it back to the VAB for the next launch cycle. Since 1977, these crawlers have covered over 2,500 miles back and forth on this 3.5 mile stretch of roadway.      Photos Six & Seven: Prior to the construction of the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF), the space shuttle orbiter landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. This required a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft to transport the orbiter back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which was expensive. On March 18, 1974, the SLF idea was announced. After a groundbreaking ceremony, construction began on one of the largest runways in the world. Shuttles could then land at Kennedy Space Center, the port from which they would launch, making the operation of a reusable spacecraft drastically more efficient. Major efforts are conducted to control local birds and reptiles. Alligators tend to bask in the sun on this landing strip. A few hours prior to a shuttle landing, a brave individual would drive the length of the runway and remove alligators by hand.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour receives a high-flying salute from its sister Shuttle Columbia, atop NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, shortly after its landing Oct. 12, 1994 at Edwards, California, to complete mission STS-68. Columbia was being ferried from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida to Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California, where it will undergo six months of inspections, modifications, and systems upgrades. The STS-68 11-day mission was devoted to radar imaging of Earth’s geological features with the Space Radar Laboratory. The orbiter is surrounded by equipment and personnel that make up the ground support convoy that services the space vehicles as soon as they land.

Let History Never Forget the Name Enterprise

Just as the captains of the fictional 24th century Starfleet blazed a trail among the stars, the space shuttle Enterprise helped pave the way for future space exploration. 

Fifty years ago, Star Trek debuted with the USS Enterprise as the main space-faring vessel used in much of the Star Trek universe. As such, the vessel holds a treasured place in the hearts of Star Trek fans and is as much of a character in the show as Kirk and Spock. Over three different series and a total of 14 seasons on TV and 13 feature films, the iterations of Enterprise have captured the imaginations and provided inspiration for its fans across the globe. 

This brief history of the shuttle tells the tale of humanity’s first reusable spacecraft. Space shuttles were first built in the late 1970s and were flown in space from 1981 to 2011. Their missions ranged from helping to build the International Space Station to repairing the Hubble Space Telescope.   

It’s All In The Name

The first shuttle was originally to be named Constitution, celebrating the country’s bicentennial and was to be unveiled to the public on Constitution Day, Sept. 17, 1976. However, a massive letter-writing campaign by Star Trek fans prompted President Gerald Ford to suggest the change. In the above photo, we see the shuttle Enterprise rolled out in Palmdale, California, with cast members of Star Trek on Sept. 17, 1976. 

To Boldly Go …

This circular red, white and blue emblem was  the official insignia for the Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Test flights and became a model for future space shuttle mission patch designs, including placing the names of the crew on the patch . The four astronauts listed on the patch are: 

  • Fred Haise., commander of the first crew 
  • Charles Fullerton, pilot of the first crew 
  • Joe Engle, commander of the second crew 
  • Dick Truly, pilot of the second crew 

First Impressions

In this image, Enterprise makes its first appearance mated to its boosters as it is slowly rolled to the huge Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center. Although she never flew in space, shuttle Enterprise underwent a series of fit and function checks on the pad in preparation for the first launch of its sister craft, Columbia.

Not Meant To Be

Enterprise sits on Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center undergoing tests after completing its 3.5 mile journey from the VAB. Have you ever wondered why Enterprise never went into space? Converting Enterprise from a training vehicle to space-worthy one was too cost prohibitive, our engineers felt.

Engage

Commander Fred Haise and pilot Charles Fullerton are seen in the cockpit of Enterprise prior to the fifth and final Approach and Landing Test at Dryden Flight Research Center (Armstrong Flight Research Center). The tests were performed to learn about the landing characteristics of the shuttle.

It’s Been An Honor To Serve With You

The Enterprise’s two crews pose for a photo op at the Rockwell International Space Division’s Orbiter assembly facility at Palmdale, California. They are (left to right) Charles Fullerton, Fred Haise, Joe Engle and Dick Truly.

Fair Winds And Following Seas

On July 6, 2012, the Enterprise, atop a barge, passes the Statue of Liberty on its way to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, where is now permanently on display.

Learn more about Star Trek and NASA.

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     Discovery, the queen of the Space Shuttle Orbiter fleet, now rests in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. As the high-time orbiter, she spent 365 days in space and flew 148,221,675 miles over the course of her 39 spaceflight missions. These figures are outstanding, though the shuttle orbiters were designed to fly up to 100 times in space.

     At the beginning of her operational career in 1984, Discovery was destined to be the DoD (Department of Defense) orbiter. It was ordained by NASA that her home would be Vandenberg Air Force Base’s SLC-6 (Space Launch Complex - 6) in California. There she would fly classified missions for the US Military. The nation went full speed ahead in preparing Vandenberg to support these missions, but the 1986 Challenger Disaster would cancel any plans to fly from the West Coast. Discovery did, however, fly four of the ten classified DoD shuttle missions, all emanating from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

     Discovery’s more notable moments include the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, one docking to Space Station Mir and 13 dockings to the International Space Station. After both the Challenger and Columbia Disasters, Discovery would lead our nation back into space on bold return to flight missions. After 26 years of service, her final spaceflight touched down at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility on March 9, 2011. After a lengthy de-milling process, Discovery began the second chapter of her service, now on museum duty.

The Shuttle Orbiter 101 “Enterprise” soars above the NASA 747 carrier aircraft after separating during the first free flight of the Shuttle Apporach and Landing Tests (ALTs) conducted on August 12, 1977 at Dryden Flight Research Center in Southern California. Astronauts Fred W. Haise Jr., and C. Gordon Fullerton were the crew of the “Enterprise.” The ALT free flights are designed to verify Orbiter subsonic airworthiness, integrated systems operations and pilot-guided approach and landing capability and satisfying prerequisites to automatic flight control and navigation mode.

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First of advanced environment satellites arrives at Kennedy.

The United State’s latest and most technologically advanced weather satellite was transported from its assembly facility in Colorado to Kennedy Space Center today, August 22.

A joint endeavour between NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, the GOES-R satellite weighs in at more than 6,200 pounds. Orbiting more than 22,300 miles above the Earth in Geostationary Transfer Orbit, GOES-R will provide the western hemisphere advanced weather and environmental forecasting technology.

GOES-R, which stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, is the first of four third-generation GOES satellites built by Lockheed Martin.

Lofting such a heavy and sensitive satellite across the country required the use of a U.S. Air Force C-5 cargoplane.A t 3:16pm EDT the plane touched down at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility. Later this evening, the satellite will be transported 17 miles to a clean room facility in nearby Titusville. There, it will undergo unpacking and inspection before prelaunch operations commence.

Liftoff is scheduled for 5:40pm EDT on November 4. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will fly in the 541 configuration with a five meter diameter payload fairing, four strap on AJ-60A solid rocket motors, and a single-RL-10 engine on the Centaur upper stage.

P/c: NASA, NOAA, Lockheed Martin, Gary Napier.