Spaceflight Now

Endeavour and carrier jet joined as one for ferryflight

Posted: September 14, 2012

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Taking the reverse course she followed when returning from spaceflights, the retired shuttle Endeavour moved Friday to Kennedy Space Center's runway complex and was mounted atop the modified Boeing 747 carrier jet for next week's ferryflight departure to California.

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Emerging from a storage bay on the northwestern side of the Vehicle Assembly Building at 5:04 a.m. EDT, the orbiter passed the former mission preparation hangars, crossed State Road 3 and followed the concrete towway to the Shuttle Landing Facility apron, arriving at the Mate-Demate Device at 7:22 a.m. EDT.

"It is a little bit emotional. We had some of the team members who had been processing Endeavour for flight all those years, they are out here this morning. There are some teary eyes for sure," said Stephanie Stilson, NASA's manager overseeing the shuttle retirement activities.

It was the final time a shuttle would make that trek, going in either direction, and the final time the Mate-Demate Device will be used.

A permanent structure at KSC, with a duplicate at the shuttle's alternate landing site of Edwards Air Force Base in California, the devices perform the loading and unloading operations between the orbiters and 747. The 25,000-square-foot structures are 170-feet deep, 140-feet wide and 80-feet high.

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Some of the last-remaining shuttle technicians still employed at the spaceport escorted the vehicle on the predawn trip and then went to work getting the four-point lifting structure hooked up to Endeavour for the ascent off the ground, retraction of the landing gear and pulling the 747 underneath the spacecraft. The duo was mated together at 2:41 p.m.

For Endeavour's offloading in Los Angeles, however, a makeshift, dual-crane contraption will be employed for the heavy-duty job. About 40 technicians will travel to the West Coast to conduct the work, with the demating finished by 11 a.m. local time next Friday, if all goes according the schedule.

Endeavour's legacy includes 25 spaceflights over 19 years that spanned 122,883,151 miles traveled, 4,677 orbits of the planet and 299 days spent aloft. Her future is the California Science Center, serving as an inspirational exhibit at the hands-on learning facility geared to school children.

In the past 15 months since her final landing after the STS-134 mission, Endeavour's toxic hypergolic plumbing and components used for maneuvering the ship in space have been removed to safe those systems for the public. A cleaned thruster nose piece and twin tail pods have been installed on the ship, as well as three replica main engines.

"The components that we have removed have been internal, so you can't from the outside even tell that they have been removed, a majority of those coming out of the aft of the vehicle -- all of the connection points to where the engines would get fuel, feedlines are what we call them, valves, boxes inside the aft," said Stilson.

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"On the outside, the only thing that you see that are not flight-original would be the nozzles of the engines, but they are built from previously flown nozzles and/or test nozzles. So they are using actual hardware to simulate the real engines," she added.

The engine nozzles on Endeavour, however, had been spruced up a bit to appear even more life-like than those on Discovery now in the Smithsonian.

"What's a little bit different from Discovery to Endeavour is the Smithsonian paid to have some additional refurbishment of the nozzles, we call that the lowest-grade of refurbishment. Well, California Science Center...took the next step and paid to have more work done to make them look even more real. If you were to compare them...there is more foam and insulation on the lines of the nozzles," Stilson said.

The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, originally built in 1970 by Boeing and then sold by American Airlines to NASA in 1974, is modified to haul the spaceplanes. Its insides largely are removed to save weight and three support struts protrude from the upper surface for attaching the shuttles.

Now, this jumbo jet's career that has spanned the entire shuttle era will complete one final ferryflight with Endeavour before being parked for good in its own retirement starting later this month at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.

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"It's very unique thing even for us to look at the vehicle," said Jeff Moultrie, one of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft pilots. "It's an icon for NASA and the public, for the taxpayer. It is a prideful thing for us to do and we're happy to be part of this historic event. On the flipside, we are sad to see this part of our job going away."

Known as NASA 905, the aircraft is scheduled for takeoff Monday at 7:15 a.m. EDT on the first of four legs to reach Los Angeles International Airport a little before 12 noon Thursday.

Once Endeavour is plucked off the 747, an operation expected to start at midnight and finish by 11 a.m. Friday, the ship will be stored in a United Airlines hangar where technicians will remove the ferryflight tailcone, reposition the engine nozzles and body flap, install the orbital maneuvering system engine nozzles, plus put the final touches on the orbiter before NASA hands over full control the California Science Center around Sept. 27.

The comes the day-and-a-half procession through city streets to the science center on Oct. 12 and 13. Endeavour goes on public display at the pavilion built in Exposition Park on Oct. 30.