Slate's Explainer: How Shuttles Get Back to Florida

The space shuttle Discovery landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert Tuesday morning. But how does NASA get the shuttle back to its home base in Florida? Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains how space shuttles are transported.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

We reported yesterday that the space shuttle Discovery landed safely at California's Edwards Air Force Base. The shuttle didn't return to its home base in Florida due to concerns about the weather. NASA prefers shuttles to land in Florida because when they don't, they have to be ferried across the country in a long and expensive process. Just how long and expensive? Well, here with an Explainer is Andy Bowers of the online magazine Slate.

ANDY BOWERS reporting:

As you may remember from the days when the shuttle routinely landed here in California, the way you get it back to Florida is by hitching it to a tricked-out jumbo jet. NASA owns a pair of Boeing 747s that stay at Edwards Air Force Base for most of the year awaiting wayward space shuttles. The two jets, dubbed shuttle carrier aircraft, or SCAs, are almost identical in appearance and functionality. The SCAs are both erstwhile commercial airplanes with a few modifications. All of the interior seats and furnishings have been removed, and, most notably, each carrier aircraft has an extra pair of vertical stabilizers that act like rudders and help the plane compensate for its unwieldy cargo.

Before attaching Discovery to the SCA, NASA personnel will lift the shuttle off the ground using a cranelike device. Then they'll roll the 747 underneath before lowering the shuttle on top. The same devices that attach the shuttle to its orange external fuel tank during blastoff are used to bind the shuttle to its host plane. A crew of approximately 170 will prep the shuttle for its ride home. The process typically takes about a week.

The shuttle is roughly three-quarters the length of the carrier plane. Binding the two together creates an unwieldy double-decker contraption. Due to the piggyback plane's lousy aerodynamics and sizable weight, the SCA's fuel efficiency is significantly lower than that of a commercial plane. As a result, an SCA can't fly more than 1,000 nautical miles without refueling. The trip back will take up to 12 hours of flight time spread over two or three days.

Throughout the voyage a plane known as a pathfinder flies ahead and acts as a kind of weather scout. The shuttle's external tiles are highly susceptible to the elements. To make sure they don't get damaged, the pathfinder looks out for storm clouds and warns the SCA pilots of upcoming high winds or turbulence. According to NASA, the price tag for a cross-country shuttle trip is around $230,000.

Before this year NASA last ferried a shuttle back to Florida in 2002. Since the early 1980s, NASA has carried out 51 shuttle transport missions, including one trip across the Atlantic to take the Enterprise to the Paris Air Show.

BRAND: Andy Bowers is a senior editor at the online magazine Slate. And that Explainer was compiled by Felix Gillette.

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