HOUSTON – Another piece of history tied to the now retired space shuttle fleet is making its last journey.
A convoy of giant flatbed trailers slowly began an eight-mile trip Monday carrying the biggest disassembled pieces of the old 747 jumbo jet that flew shuttles on cross-country trips for decades.
Known as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, or SCA, it will be put back together, topped with a shuttle replica about 60 feet off the ground and become a museum piece scheduled to be shown next year just outside NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where centre director Ellen Ochoa will see it from her office window.
“I think it will be a great landmark,” said Ochoa, who believed the display at the adjacent Space Center Houston would provide for visitors a final piece of the story about shuttle missions.
“Just being able to put the shuttle on top and show how it was ferried back and forth, it was pretty amazing when people first came up with that concept. I think the initial thought was: That’s a crazy idea. But our folks made it work, and that was part of what made the shuttle program successful,” said Ochoa, who flew on four space shuttle missions.
Houston, where Mission Control served as the centre for the nation’s manned space flights and where astronauts have trained, was left out as a retirement home for the real shuttles. Those went to Los Angeles, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and New York City.
“This will tell the story of how it was ferried back and forth and how it landed,” Ochoa said. “For me it’s part of completing this story.”
Unlike the four other shuttles, the replica and the carrier will be open to the public, making it a “fantastic” educational experience, she said.
The modified 747 would carry the shuttle piggyback to Florida after missions where the spacecraft landed in California or New Mexico, instead of the normal, and less costly, landings at Kennedy Space Center.
This week’s procession, moving at about walking speed, was headed from Houston’s Ellington Field to Space Center Houston, a science education and space museum.
The caravan began moving Monday afternoon, crawling along roads through the former Air Force base and stopping while utility crews moved overhead lines. Once outside the airfield, it will move over two days only at night so it doesn’t too badly disrupt traffic and normal activities along its route in far south Houston. It is scheduled to cover six miles by Tuesday morning, then finish the trek the following night.
“I just wanted to see it,” Phil Williams, 83, a retired NASA employee said as he and his wife, Ardis, 87, walked up close to the carrier. “I wanted to see a real shuttle here, of course, but that’s not to be. That’s all right. I’m not going to get upset with the small stuff.”
It took 38 days to take the carrier apart, and will need 44 days to reassemble for its role as centerpiece of a $12 million expansion at Space Center Houston.
The largest section of the Boeing 747 is the fuselage, measuring 25 feet wide, 35 feet high and more than 190 feet long. The length is as long as two basketball courts.
Other trailers are carrying the aircraft’s two wings, vertical and horizontal stabilizers, tail and other pieces. The total package weighs 159 tons.
NASA had two of the 747s, known by their tail numbers 905 and 911. The now Houston-based plane was NASA 905 and the first to get the distinctive struts protruding from its fuselage that served as mounts for the shuttle.
The former American Airlines passenger jet was obtained by NASA in 1974, was renovated and was used first on test flights with shuttle prototype Enterprise.
Its twin, NASA 911, a former Japan Air Lines plane, was obtained in 1989 and retired in 2012. It’s been serving as a parts source for other NASA 747s and for experimental flights.
Space Center Houston opened in 1992, replacing a smaller visitors centre that for years had operated within Johnson Space Center.