Delivering the space shuttles is tougher than you think


WASHINGTON -- When you need to move a nearly 175,000-pound space shuttle with a 78-foot wingspan, who you gonna call?

NASA, of course. But also companies that own big cranes. In New York, call a barge owner. And in Los Angeles, traffic engineers and the LAPD.

Delivering retired orbiters to their final display sites in Los Angeles, New York, the Washington, D.C., area and Florida’s Kennedy Space Center is presenting special challenges to the agency that put men on the moon.


Delivery crews have dusted off an apparatus last used in the 1980s for transporting the shuttle. They have rehearsed the delicate task of unloading the orbiter from atop a Boeing 747. And they have surveyed Los Angeles streets to ensure they can withstand the spacecraft’s weight.

The challenges will come into focus next week with the delivery of the first shuttle -- Discovery -- to its new home, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum annex in northern Virginia after a rare fly-over in the Washington area atop a modified Boeing 747.

Some 20 truckloads of equipment needed to unload the shuttle from the plane had to be hauled from Kennedy Space Center to Dulles International Airport. Two large cranes were brought in as well.

“They’ve got X marks the spot out at Dulles so they know exactly where the cranes have to be situated,” Valerie Neal, space shuttle curator at the National Air and Space Museum, said in an interview.

NASA had to test equipment last used in 1985 when the Enterprise test shuttle was delivered to the Smithsonian.

“There are some things that have been sitting in boxes since 1985,” Stephanie Stilson, who is overseeing the shuttle delivery for NASA, told the Los Angeles Times. She noted that crews staged a dry run testing the equipment “three times” to ensure it would work.


Delivery of the shuttle Endeavour to Los Angeles in September or October presents more of a logistical challenge.

The orbiter, which has traveled about 123 million miles, will need to go another 12 miles or so through city streets from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center in Exposition Park near downtown.

Designed to travel up to 17,500 mph in space, the shuttle is likely to poke along at 1 mph, as if it were on the Santa Monica Freeway.

Shuttles also will be delivered to New York -- via barge from John F. Kennedy International Airport to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum -- this summer and to the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida late this year or early next year.

Officials hope the deliveries will go smoother than the political turbulence encountered when NASA awarded the shuttles to cities other than Houston, home of mission control. At the time, a headline in the Houston Chronicle read, “One Giant Snub for Houston.”

Splashy ceremonies are planned to welcome the shuttles.

After the 747 carrying Discovery flies over the Washington area, at about 1,500 feet, on Tuesday, the Smithsonian ceremony April 19 will feature Discovery crew members and space pioneer John Glenn, who returned to space in 1998 aboard the Discovery at age 77.


Los Angeles officials considered moving the shuttle at night to reduce traffic disruptions. But plans now call for moving the orbiter in the day, probably on a weekend, so the public can see it.

“Never before and never again will a space shuttle move through a major urban area,” Jeffrey N. Rudolph, the science center’s president, said in an interview. “Even if we did it at midnight, people are going to come out in large numbers.”

A final route has yet to be selected.

The science center has already paid $14.2 million to NASA for preparation and delivery costs.

Los Angeles officials have secured the “overland transporter” used to ferry shuttles in the 1980s from their Palmdale assembly site to Edwards Air Force Base. Officials also are videotaping a proposed route to see what obstacles, such as traffic lights and utility poles, would need to be moved to accommodate the wide load.

Discovery will be exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., “in landing configuration” with the crew cabin and payload bay door closed. Visitors won’t be able to venture inside Discovery, but Neal said they would be able to experience the interior through “virtual reality kiosks.”

The California Science Center initially plans to display the shuttle horizontally but eventually will mount it vertically, as if for launch. The Kennedy Space Center plans to display Atlantis in “orbital configuration with payload bay doors open.”



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