Shuttle orbiter fleet heading into their final months ahead of exhibition

by Philip Sloss

With Kennedy Space Center workers towing Orbiter Atlantis on Thursday “around the corner” of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) the day after they moved Endeavour out of the same place, one might have thought it was Groundhog Day, and by coincidence it just so happened it was.

Shuttle Preparing For Final Destinations:

While America’s perhaps best-known rodent meteorologist Punxsutawney Phil was forecasting an extended winter, Atlantis was moved into VAB High Bay 4 in Springtime warmth in a movie-like repeat of the previous day’s work

This orbiter shuffle was the second in a possible series of “double-moves” to get each of the famous spaceships ready for transport to their display sites in the coming months.

Orbiters Discovery and Endeavour traded places back in August, Atlantis and Endeavour switched positions this week, and the next potential double-move could be sometime next month, which would signify completion of Transition and Retirement (T&R) work on Discovery at Kennedy and her readiness to be ferried to Washington, D.C. in mid-April.

Atlantis will eventually take Discovery’s place in Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) Bay 1, but the exact timing and route of the moves will depend on when Discovery is ready to ferry.  For now, work to begin removing Main Propulsion System (MPS) hardware from Atlantis for preservation for possible Space Launch System use is slated to start in High Bay 4.

Meanwhile, T&R work has resumed on Endeavour in OPF Bay 2 to get her ready for her planned ferry flight to Los Angeles now planned for the Fall. 

Bart Pannullo, NASA Vehicle Manager for Space Shuttle Transition and Retirement processing, spoke with media in attendance on Wednesday for Endeavour’s move back to the OPF; when asked about upcoming processing milestones, he noted that Endeavour’s decommissioned reaction control system (RCS) hardware was on the way back to KSC. 

“They’ve actually completed processing and they’re in transport right now and they’ll be delivered to Kennedy Space Center on Monday,” Panullo said, referring to the ship-set of Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) and Forward Reaction Control System (FRCS) pods that were decommissioned out at a facility in White Sands, New Mexico

Depending on the progress of processing work in the near-term, Panullo said that Endeavour’s gutted FRCS module could be re-installed next week.  He also noted that contract negotiations are still ongoing for shipment of Atlantis’s RCS hardware to White Sands for decommissioning work. 

Discovery’s RCS hardware has already been re-attached, but when her OMS pods were reinstalled, they were noticeably missing OMS engine nozzles – although the pods were also missing most of their seldom-seen internal hardware. “Because some of the nozzles aren’t safe for ferry flight, they’re going to be installed at the display sites, post-ferry,” Panullo explained. 

With the second orbiter double-move underway and the possibility of another one, NSF also asked Panullo about what might happen with Endeavour between when she is “ready to ferry” and her actual ferry flight.  “Endeavour is going to be processing pretty much up until the point it’s ready to leave,” he said. 

“Now that’s where it’s different with 103 [Discovery]; 103 we’re actually going to finish up processing in the middle of March and move it to the VAB for storage and then it’ll sit there until it goes directly out to the MDD, the Mate-Demate Device, and that will happen in mid-April.”

Although the target date for Discovery’s ferry remains April 17, the exact plans and timing for where Discovery might be stored before her ferry flight seem to remain in flux.

While observing work to secure Atlantis in High Bay 4 on Thursday after her move, the media group there for the photo opportunity heard a few possibilities; the ones we heard seemed to depend on when Discovery’s T&R work is completed and she is ready to ferry.  The earlier work is complete, the more moving around – such as just seen with Atlantis – might need to be done. 

If T&R work finishes much closer to the planned April 17th departure date from KSC, then there might not be much moving around. 

Noting another factor, on Wednesday Pannullo said “there are some other things going on with facilities,” that might play into the temporary storage locations for Discovery before ferry.  No final decisions have been made yet. 

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The actual takeoff dates and ferry stops for Discovery and Endeavour will be subject to weather conditions, similar to the past.  When asked whether there might be any changes in the weather rules, Panullo said he was unaware of any.

In addition to work going with the orbiter vehicles at KSC, the media group also observed ferry flight hardware for Enterprise getting ready for shipment.  The Approach and Landing Test Article OMS pods (or ‘ALTA pods’) were originally built for Enterprise and were used in 1977 during Approach and Landing Tests at Dryden Flight Research Center and Edwards Air Force Base in California. 

The ALTA pods were subsequently used to ferry all the Shuttle orbiter vehicles at one time or another throughout Shuttle Program operations when the OMS flight hardware was either under construction at the final assembly plant in Palmdale, California, or in maintenance at KSC. 

Both ALTA pods were seen on Thursday attached to their transportation trailers in the VAB, sitting next to their lifting equipment.  One of pods was used in a practice fit check on Endeavour last year while she was in High Bay 4. 

The ALTA pods should soon be shipped to Washington for installation (expected to be permanent) on Enterprise.  Enterprise will be ferried out of Washington to New York City shortly after Discovery arrives in April. 

To read about the orbiters –  from birth, processing, every single mission, through to retirement, click here for the links:

(Images: Via NASA and L2 content – And special photography provided by Philip Sloss, and Larry Sullivan, MaxQ/ – many thousands of super hi-res image stock available on L2’s new Photo Section)

(L2 and NSF are continuing to follow the orbiters through their transitional period. To join L2, click here:

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