Meet NASA’s 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, NASA 905

NASA's 747 being prepared for the move into the 'mate de-mate' device. Photo Credit Julian Leek / Blue Sawtooth Studios
NASA’s 747 being prepared for the move into the ‘mate de-mate’ device.
Photo Credit Julian Leek / Blue Sawtooth Studios

 NASA’s 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, identified by its tail number as NASA 905, arrived at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida yesterday afternoon to ferry the retired space shuttle Endeavour on one final flight together next week.  On Monday morning, September 17, the pair will embark on a three-day, one-way trip across the southern United States to Los Angeles, California, where the orbiter will eventually go on permanent public display at the California Science Center in Exposition Park.

NASA 905’s arrival in Florida marks the final time the heavily modified Boeing 747 will visit Kennedy Space Center – its 38 years of service supporting NASA’s space shuttle program will come to an end with the arrival of Endeavour in Los Angeles on September 20.  The voyage will mark the thirteenth flight for the Endeavour / NASA 905 pair, and the 223rd space shuttle ferry flight for the NASA 905 SCA.  The number of orbiter ferry flight missions NASA 905 has conducted (67, Endeavour’s flight next week will be 68) differs from the number of orbiter ferry flights conducted, because NASA catalogs flights from takeoff to landing.  The SCA / shuttle pair typically make 2-3 stops during a cross-country voyage for refueling, so a cross-country orbiter ferry mission has always been officially documented as 2-3 ferry flights.

The SCA originally flew commercial passenger flights for American Airlines before being purchased by NASA in 1974.  Prior to becoming the shuttle’s long-haul transport, NASA 905 flew several wake vortex research flights for the space agency at the Dryden Flight Research Center in southern California, a study whose primary focus was to find ways of reducing turbulence produced by large aircraft.  As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) modified flight procedures for commercial aircraft during takeoffs and landings in order to prevent control problems experienced by pilots in the wake of another aircraft.

The tail section of the original American Airlines 747 had to be modified to help with is aerodynamics. Photo Credit: Julian Leek / Blue Sawtooth Studios.

The 231-foot long, 318,000 pound NASA 905 first took the skies with an orbiter riding piggyback in 1977, conducting a series of eight captive and five free flights with the orbiter prototype Enterprise as part of NASA’s Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests (ALT).  Those tests were critical in validating the Shuttle Carrier’s ability to safely transport the space shuttle, in addition to verifying the glide and landing characteristics of the space shuttles themselves.  The ALT program and NASA 905 proved that the SCA could get the job done, and also proved the space shuttle could safely land as a glider – paving the way for space flights by sister orbiters Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour.

NASA's Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 905, still sporting its original American Airlines colors, is pictured here with shuttle Enterprise during the first of the shuttle program's Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) at the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California, in 1977.  Photo Credit: NASA
NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 905, still sporting its original American Airlines colors, is pictured here with shuttle Enterprise during the first of the shuttle program’s Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) at the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California, in 1977. Photo Credit: NASA

Flying a 170,000 pound, 122-foot long space shuttle orbiter on top of a 747 is no easy feat.  A minimum of two pilots and two flight engineers are required by NASA for the SCA to fly an orbiter.   There are no interior furnishings or equipment aft of the forward doors, and two additional vertical stabilizers help enhance the aircraft’s ability to maneuver safely in flight with a shuttle riding piggyback.  Four Pratt and Whitney gas turbine engines, each producing 50,000 pounds of thrust, power the aircraft/spacecraft pair through the skies at 280 miles per hour.  The mated vehicles weigh in at over 488,000 pounds, and with NASA 905’s capacity to carry 47,000 gallons of jet fuel they can fly 1,000 miles before having to stop for refueling.

Inside the rear fuselage of the SCA everything has been removed, right down to the insulation. Photo Credit; Julian Leek / Blue Sawtooth Studios

NASA 905 delivered the space shuttle Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center to Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. this past April, where the orbiter known as the leader of NASA’s shuttle fleet is now on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  NASA 905 then delivered the prototype orbiter Enterprise, which Discovery replaced at the Smithsonian, to New York City a couple weeks later, where the Enterprise is now on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.

– One Final Ride Together

Next week’s final ferry flight will give various sites across the country a chance to say farewell to Endeavour, many of those locations having played important roles supporting the space shuttle program over the years.  The SCA, with Endeavour riding piggyback, will make several passes up and down Florida’s Space Coast before heading west towards California.  The first in a series of low flyovers will take place above NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Stennis played a key role in testing the space shuttle main engines (SSME’s) that powered Endeavour and her sister orbiters into the heavens, and Michoud manufactured the iconic orange external fuel tanks (ET’s) which fed massive amounts of cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to the space shuttle’s three main engines during the eight minute ride to orbit.

Upon arriving in the skies over Texas, NASA 905 will perform another series of low flyovers above Houston, Clear Lake, and Galveston before landing at Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where the pair will remain for the rest of September 17 and all day September 18.  Houston and the Johnson Space Center (JSC) is home to mission control, they were in charge of the missions after the shuttles left their Florida launch pad, and watched over the crews 24/7 until the end of the mission.  Many astronauts and many of those involved with their training and mission support worked out of JSC, and made a life for themselves and their families in the Houston area.

Taking Endeavour on her final cross country flight will be veteran 747 Pilot Jeff Moultrie.
Photo Credit: Julian Leek / Blue Sawtooth Studios

Endeavour’s final flight picks up again at sunrise on Wednesday, September 19, with a stop planned at Biggs Army Airfield in El Paso to refuel before continuing on its westward journey across the southern United States.  Another series of low-level flyovers are planned for White Sands Test Facility near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where the aircraft will land before embarking on the final leg of its the journey to Los Angeles.

Departing Dryden on the morning of September 20, NASA 905 with Endeavour will head north towards the Bay Area and perform low-level flyovers of NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field and various landmarks over San Francisco and Sacramento.  AMES researchers designed, developed, and tested the critical thermal protection system blankets and tiles that protected the shuttles and their crews during the violent Mach-25 return through Earth’s atmosphere.  AMES also performed over 35,000 hours of pre-flight wind tunnel testing for the shuttle program, and AMES was critical in the engineering and training related to the shuttle’s approach, landing, and rollout – every shuttle pilot over the 30-year shuttle program practiced approaches and landings at AMES.  Life Science payloads, Biomedical research and Advanced Life Support research on space shuttle missions all have roots at AMES Research Center.

Upon delivering Endeavour to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) next week, NASA 905 will fly the short distance back to Dryden and undergo modifications for its new mission, supporting NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Boeing 747 aircraft.


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