This week, when the space shuttle Endeavour flies from Kennedy Space Center to Los Angeles and its new home at the California Science Center, it also means the retirement of the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) that has been responsible for transporting all the space shuttles for over 35 years.
Edwards Air Force Base in California has had both the responsibility and honor of being the home of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft since the earliest days of the shuttle program. The team in charge of flying and servicing the two 747s is preparing to say their own goodbyes as the final ferry flights brings a shuttle back to the West Coast.
Driving through the entrance of Edwards is like entering another world. The desert is stark, the land flat, and the sun intense. Even at 7 am, the heat rises off the flats of Rogers Dry Lake in wavy mirages of distortion. The history of the area is palpable and it almost feels like the sonic boom of Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 is still echoing off of the distant mountains all the way from 1947.
Dryden Flight Research Center sits at the northern end of the base and has an immediate familiarity to it, exactly what you’d expect a test flight facility to look like. The remaining Shuttle Carrier 747 sits on the tarmac while nearby the mate/de-mate structure, used to attach the shuttle to the carrier plane, towers in a truss of steel. A third of all shuttle missions landed here, all requiring a ferry flight back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to prepare the orbiter for the next launch.
With the space shuttle’s new mission of education and inspiration now residing in museums instead of space, the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft that I visited that day was poised and ready for its final opportunity to carry an orbiter. After transporting Endeavour coast-to-coast on a multiple-day journey that stops at multiple NASA facilities along the way, the mated pair will land at LAX and be separated. As Endeavour makes her way to the California Science Center for public display in a grand parade October 12-13, the SCA will head to Palmdale, CA, to await possible decommissioning in an aircraft boneyard.
Most of the NASA employees associated with the shuttle are already gone, laid off in the massive reorganizations affecting NASA at facilities across the country. The lone aircraft mechanic from the original SCA maintenance team was left to reflect on an uncertain future after servicing the planes for these final flights. Other staff are slowly coming to the delayed realization that this part of the program is also over.
The plane itself is vintage, older than the orbiters it was responsible for transporting. Built in 1970, with few modernizations other than the extreme customization necessary to safely carry a 172,000 pound (78,018 kilogram) piggybacking spacecraft, it began its career as a passenger 747 for American Airlines.
Since NASA acquired the plane in 1974, it has been stationed at Dryden and Edwards along with another carrier plane added to the fleet in 1990. The two have been icons of the base, only ever leaving to transport an orbiter back east. The newer SCA has already been retired to Palmdale. When this aircraft departs to the west with Endeavour on September 19th for LAX after their final refueling stop, she’ll never return. It’s the end of an era after almost 40 years of service.
To view the interior space of the Space Shuttle Carrier aircraft in high resolution 360 visuals, click on the links below: