Deep in the Heart of Texas

Okay, maybe not geographically the heart of Texas, but close enough. We landed at Biggs Army Airfield near El Paso, Texas. The flight seemed really quick and I’ll tell you something, flying with NASA pilots beats flying commercial any day. These guys don’t mess around! If we’re banking left, we are BANKING LEFT!

NASA pilots are also patient enough to let me take their picture while flying.

The pathfinder plane that we were all flying in is a NASA C-9 airplane. We had the weather officers and quite a few from the shuttle team on board with us and we were flying about 100 miles in front of Atlantis and the SCA. Here’s how the C-9 looks from the outside.

Here’s what it looks like on the inside. Not necessarily plush, but they did pass out Fritos and soda.

Like I said, we’re in Texas at our first stop. We landed here at Biggs at 11:22 am MDT. The shuttle team now has meetings all afternoon where they’ll keep a close eye on the weather forecasts and plot out the rest of our route. Here are some pics and a quick video of Atlantis and the SCA landing. 

We’re going to stay here overnight and if all goes as planned and the weather cooperates we’ll be on our way in the morning. 

The early morning.

Space Shuttle Atlantis' Ferry Flight Now Under Way

Space shuttle Atlantis’ ferry flight is under way! The modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft carrying Atlantis took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California at 11:06 a.m. EDT. The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft is heading to Biggs Army Air Field in El Paso, Texas, and is expected to arrive about 1:10 p.m. EDT. The shuttle and the ferry flight team will stay at Biggs overnight and then continue on tomorrow morning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

By the Dawn's Early Light

We were up early this morning for the weather briefing (although maybe not as early as I had initially made it seem) and everything is looking good. We are scheduled to take off a little later than we had planned, so we are only going to make one leg of our four-leg trip.

In the comments a lot of you are asking about when we’re leaving and where we’re headed. While tomorrow’s stops are not solid yet, (weather makes us keep plans very fluid), we know today we will leave Edwards at 8:00 PDT, flying south and passing over Lancaster and Palmdale, California. We’ll also be doing a fly-over at Las Cruces, New Mexico. Weather is going to let us go as far as El Paso, Texas today and we’ll see what the schedule is for tomorrow.

Almost Ready to Go

Late last night (or really, early this morning) Atlantis was attached to the 747 in preparation for the Ferry Flight. Everything went pretty smoothly and the team is still working crazy to get everything ready to go.

I found out more about the 747 that is giving Atlantis a lift home. The 747 is officially called the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft or SCA. (We have a thing for acronyms here at NASA.) NASA has 2 of them and they’re both here at Dryden.

The SCAs were originally commercial 747s, but NASA made a couple of changes. They are obviously modified to be able to attach the orbiter on their backs with two connecting points near the back of the plane and one near the front. The tails of the planes are also different. They have two additional vertical stabilizers to help with stabilization during the flight.

All the passenger area has been stripped of galleys, carpeting and even some of the ductwork. NASA needed to make them as light as possible since we’re adding a shuttle orbiter on top. The planes still weigh more than 300,000 pounds and the drag added by having an orbiter on top adds another 190,000 pounds or more. These planes need to work twice as hard as a normal 747.

If you’re interested in the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, check out this link:

Introducing Atlantis and the 747 (Video Added!)

Yesterday I was able to go down to get an up-close look at the 747 and the shuttle orbiter as the team was getting them ready for the flight. I took the Landing Recovery Manager, Dean Schaaf, to help me understand all the work that needs to be done between now and departure.

You can watch a video of the pre-flight activities by clicking this link (Windows, streaming):

Dean told me that there are about 50 employees stationed at Edwards that assist with the landing and there are about 65 more employees from Kennedy Space Center that make the trip out from Kennedy as soon as they get word the shuttle is going to land in California. Dean was one of the 65 from Florida. He said he got the call, ran home, packed his bags and jumped on a plane heading west. More shuttle team members traveled out to Dryden after the orbiter landed. The full team is made up of shuttle techs and engineers, people who work specifically with the tiles on the shuttle’s belly, safety and quality engineers, logistics people and this time…me.

He also told me that when the shuttle lands at Edwards, it generally takes about seven days to prepare it for attaching to the 747. Thanks to some weather, the team got an extra day this time so they decided to get some “get ahead” work done to ease the load on the shuttle processing team back at Kennedy. While Dean and I were walking around getting a look at the shuttle, members of the team were inspecting and preparing the tiles for the ferry flight.

Here are a couple more shots from underneath the orbiter.

In case you’ve never seen them, this is what the tiles look like up close. They are part of the orbiter’s thermal protection system or TPS and they are made of coated silica ceramics. Their job is to protect the underside of the orbiter from the extreme heat when the shuttle reenters Earth’s atmosphere. By the way, I looked it up….reentry temperature can exceed 2300 degrees Fahrenheit! Umm, yeah. Hot.

Update From May 31 Status Briefing

It looks like everything is still going smoothly. The Shuttle managers expect the last preparations to be finished up sometime tonight, which means that the ferry flight can leave Edwards Air Force Base shortly before sunrise. (I told you these guys weren’t afraid of getting up early.)

I’ve noticed in the comments that a few of you locals have been asking about coming to see the flight take off. Edwards is a restricted access military base so it will not be open for public viewing of the departure. However, there are a few other places you can go to see it leave.

From the FFRR

Okay, here’s what I got out of the Ferry Flight Readiness Review:

Readiness Poll

From a readiness standpoint, Atlantis has “no constraints to ferry” which means it is ready to transport. The readiness poll, where the team “votes” for whether or not we’re ready to transport had GOs all around the table, so we are GO to bring Atlantis home! 

The team is planning to attach the shuttle to the 747 later tonight so I’m going to see if I can get some video or pictures of that.

Flight Schedule

We’re going to leave no earlier than Monday morning. (And when I say morning I mean these guys are not afraid of waking up early, like crack-of-dawn morning.) We don’t have a definite list of stops along the way yet since that will depend on weather.


Speaking of which, there will be a weather briefing tomorrow at 11:00 am PDT. That will give us a better idea where we’re going to stop along the way and when we’ll arrive in Florida.

More to come later…

Heading into the Ferry Flight Readiness Review

We’re getting set for the Ferry Flight Readiness Review. (Or FFRR for short.) This is the meeting where reps from the Air Force, NASA pilots, NASA managers and shuttle team members get together and evaluate the progress so far in getting the shuttle ready and where they decide when the ferry flight is going to get on its way.  They’ll talk about the status of the shuttle’s processing, the airfields we’ll stop at along the way, security, weather and most of all…readiness.

It’s not as easy as you might think to piggyback the shuttle all the way across the country. There are a ton of considerations the shuttle team has to take into account.  We’ve got employees from NASA, United Space Alliance, Abacus and EG&G, Boeing and Rocketdyne helping to get Atlantis home to Florida. They have been removing and replacing hardware, testing, preparing and gathering reports over the last week to get ready for this meeting.

I’ll give an update as soon as it’s through.

Welcome to Dryden!

Well, I made it here to Dryden Flight Research Center after an extended detour due to questionable GPS directions. No big deal, nothing wrong with the scenic route on a sunny Saturday morning. For those of you who have never been here before, there are a few things you might not know about Dryden.

Number 1:

It sits on Edwards Air Force Base in the middle of California’s Mojave Desert.

Number 2:

It’s really a beautiful place…in a middle of the barren desert sort of way.

Number 3:

Dryden was actually the original space shuttle landing site. It’s been a backup landing site to Kennedy Space Center in Florida ever since Kennedy had their runway certified for shuttle landings.

Number 4:

Including Atlantis’ STS-125 mission, there have been 53 shuttle landing here at Edwards. Each of the shuttles landed here a few times, but Discovery is in the lead with 14 landings at Edwards. With it’s most recent being STS-114 on August 9, 2005. (Atlantis is a close second place with 13 total landings at Edwards.)

Alright, now that I’ve given you the Dryden Shuttle Landing 101 I have to get some stuff together for the Ferry Flight Readiness Review meeting.

…more about that later.

Cross Country With the Shuttle

One thing I keep hearing about the weather in Central Florida is that if you’re not happy with it you just need to wait a minute and it’ll change. While that’s great for those who like variety, every so often it means that sunny California gets a visit from the space shuttle. That’s the way it went with STS-125 and the crew of space shuttle Atlantis earlier this month. Weather prevented Atlantis from landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida as was planned and instead had the shuttle landing at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. Now the task is getting Atlantis back home to Florida where it can be checked and prepped for its next ride into space. To do that NASA hoists it up and attaches it to the back of a modified 747 airplane and ferries it back across the country.

My name is Daniel Kanigan and I work for NASA and today my job is to tag along with the shuttle on the cross-country ferry ride and show you how its done. My ride is an Air Force C-9 cargo aircraft, which will fly ahead of the piggybacking shuttle to serve as a pathfinder and help the shuttle carrier aircraft crew avoid rain and other weather that could damage the shuttle. I’ve never been a part of this flight before so we’ll find out together how its done.

Stay tuned…more to come.