May 15, 2017
The main reason I stopped in Houston during my early 2017 “Texas Loop” was to visit NASA’s Johnson Space Center. When manned missions were launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Mission Control there managed the events until the spacecraft cleared the launch tower. The remainder of the flight was managed by Mission Control here at JSC.
The two jets in the photo above are like the ones which helped astronauts train for flying the Space Shuttle. They were also “chase planes” which flew parallel to the Shuttle on many flights once they got down towards the Earth’s surface and especially when they landed after a mission to shoot video and take still photos to help NASA engineers monitor flight characteristics.
Although we couldn’t go in it, the building above houses Mission Control at JSC and has been named for Christopher Columbus Kraft, Jr. who helped establish the overall Mission Control concept, was Flight Director for many of the manned missions, was eventually named Head of Mission Operations and ultimately became the Director of JSC. He was still living when I made this post earlier this year but passed away July 22, 2019 at age 95.
Frankly I wasn’t nearly as impressed with the Visitor Center at JSC as I have been with other NASA facilities I have been to. Perhaps the most interesting thing, other than the Saturn V rocket (see next post), was what greets visitors after they have parked their cars and are walking towards the Visitor Center:
This is the actual Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), tail designation N905NA, which is one of two specially modified 747 jets which could carry the Shuttle “piggyback” on top of the plane (the second 747 has tail designation N911NA). This was necessary for early test flights where the jet would carry the Shuttle up to high altitude where the two vehicles would separate and the Shuttle would glide back to Earth. When the Shuttle actually flew in space there were many times when it would land at Edwards Air Force base in California (early flights in particular – a much larger runway located in a remote area, for added safety, and when proven stable if bad weather prohibited landing at Kennedy Space Center where it was attached to the booster rockets and launched). On all those occasions one of the 747’s would return the Shuttle to Florida. At the end of the Shuttle program the 747’s flew their final missions, taking the Shuttles to airports near the various museums around the country where they are now on display.
After it’s last Shuttle ferrying flight the second 747, N911NA, was flown from Edwards Air Force base to an Air Force facility in Palmdale, California and is being cannibalized to keep another NASA aircraft in service.
The airplane above is real but the Shuttle on top is a model. Visitors could go inside both.
I hadn’t noticed it at the time but in researching the aircraft for this post I found this photo of a silhouette near the front of the plane showing how many times it carried various Shuttles:
(Photo credit: None – Public Domain!)
I also found this photo of the Orbiter Mount which is where the Shuttle is attached to the airplane. You can’t see it in the photos I posted but please note the humorous comment someone painted on it:
(Photo credit: Rob Elliott)
Where are the Space Shuttles now?
Atlantis is at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida
Discovery is at the Udvar-Hazy Center (part of the Smithsonian Institution) adjacent to Dulles airport outside Washington DC
Endeavour is at the California Science Center in Los Angeles
Enterprise (which never went into space but was released for 5 “glider flights” from the 747 shown above) is now on the deck of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum (a former US Navy aircraft carrier) in New York City. It had previously been on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center outside Washington DC.
Challenger was destroyed over the Atlantic Ocean shortly after launch
Columbia was destroyed (over Texas and Louisiana) during re-entry at the end of it’s mission on it’s way to Kennedy Space Center in Florida