The Space Shuttle in the Atmosphere

NASA’s space shuttle featured an iconic, reusable orbiter piloted by a crew of seven astronauts. With its stubby wings and huge payload, the orbiter needed a lot of help getting off the ground. Like all other spacecraft, the shuttle burned through most of its rocket fuel during takeoff, after which two rockets and the fuel tank detached from the shuttle proper. Upon entering orbit, hopefully only minor corrections would be needed.

The shuttle cannot taxi or take off horizontally. It landed on a runway like an airplane, with the help of a parachute to slow it down, but after coming to a halt it was a lame duck. To get from one terrestrial location to another, the shuttle needed to hitch a ride. The shuttle program involved launches, landings, and tests in various locations around the United States. Of the 133 landings of the space shuttle era, 55 occurred not at the Kennedy Space Center, from which the shuttle always launched, but at Edwards Air Force Base in California. From there, the shuttle flew back to Florida on the top of a Boeing 747.

The 747 played a key role in the shuttle program throughout the shuttle’s lifetime. In 1977, the test orbiter Enterprise flew on the back on a 747 in various tests, including several in which it detached from the airplane and glided to a landing under the control of a crew. National Archives film 330-DIMOC-VANDBRG00347 documents a flight test at Edwards Air Force Base. Although the airplane in the film, Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 905, eventually received a NASA-themed paint job, it was acquired from American Airlines and still sported the stripes of that company at the time of the test.

When the shuttles were retired to museums in 2012, they made their final voyages on 747s as well. As Discovery arrived in Washington, D.C. to its new home in the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles, it made several flybys over the region, which I was fortunate enough to watch from College Park. It’s not every day you see a space ship fly overhead, escorted by fighter jets.

Piggybacking on a jetliner was a fairly simple and luxurious mode of travel in comparison with the immense difficulty of moving the shuttle for launching. This required transporting the orbiter, fuel tank, and two rockets in a vertical position on top of the mobile launch platform. It was a job for none other than the world’s largest vehicle, the crawler-transporter. These behemoths were originally built for the Apollo program in 1965. Weighing in at a hefty six million pounds, the crawler-transporter brought the shuttle from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch complex at one  mile per hour.

Original Caption: The space shuttle Columbia and its rockets move toward the launch pad aboard the portable launch platform. Local Photo ID: 330-CFD-DF-SN-82-00257

Compared to moving the entire assembly for takeoff, moving just the orbiter along the ground was relatively easy. The Orbiter Transport System (OTS) ushered the orbiter along at the lightning speed of five miles per hour. In National Archives film 330-DIMOC-VANDBRG00447, the Enterprise travels to Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The orbiter looks small when strapped to a much larger airplane or set of rockets. On the back on the slim OTS, with its wings hanging over the edges of the road, the orbiter seems almost comically huge.

The OTS is still in use, but not at NASA. SpaceX bought the vehicle in 2014 for $37,075.

You may also have noticed that neither the films nor the image in this blog post come from Record Group 255, Records of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, but rather Record Group 330, Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The Department of Defense has always provided logistical support to NASA, and this record group accordingly contains many photographic and audio-visual materials related to spaceflight. In particular, the two films can be found in 330-DIMOC. This series, from the Defense Imagery Management Operations Center, includes films related to the shuttle program. 330-DIMOC has already been partially processed and opened to researchers, with more to come as work proceeds on this very large series.