With all of the high-level mechanical, electronic and navigational tricks the U.S. space program has produced, you may be surprised to learn that, even for the smartest people on the planet, parking is still a problem.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the U.S. government agency chiefly responsible for spaceflight. In July 1969, NASA put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor at 240,000 miles. When the astronauts brought their spacecraft back, they were invited to park it in the Pacific Ocean, which they accomplished admirably. They and their craft were loaded onto a U.S. Navy ship, nothing was lost and everyone arrived safely ashore.
Enterprise is born
Fast-forward a little more than eight years. In developmental flights, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base was testing aerodynamic (flight) characteristics of the first space shuttle, a vehicle with the familiar name Enterprise (http://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/news/FactSheets/FS-015-DFRC.html) Science fiction fans in the 1960s saw a starship with the same name on television, and it seemed appropriate to use a name from the “twenty-third century” on a brand new vehicle intended to move the nation into the twenty-first. (Ignore that nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, CVN-65, behind the curtain.)
It’s a good bet that the space agency needs a dry place to put the space shuttles when they return from orbit, so the Pacific is out. What is “in” depends on the orbital flight characteristics NASA intends to give each of its shuttle flights. That probably needs a bit of explaining.
Which way to space?
Suppose your space shuttle is going to be traveling over the equator on its next mission. It will be launched from Kennedy Space Center (KSC). If your mission requires an orbit that skirts the poles of Earth, the shuttle will begin its mission at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Why?
Due to the government’s need to respect the sovereignty of other nations-and a host of safety and weight considerations-KSC may not launch spacecraft at greater than 35 degrees northeast or 120 degrees southeast. Therefore, polar orbital planes cannot be reached from the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Vandenberg, on the other hand, has access to launch directions between 201 and 158 degrees, which allows polar insertion launches south, southwest and southeast (http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/technology/sts-newsref/sts_overview.html). NASA puts things into space for many different groups, some civilian and some military. Some of the cargo they carry stays inside the vehicle, but the delivery of, say, a communications satellite may require a different orbital insertion vector than the most recent prior mission to the International Space Station (ISS). What that means is that the space shuttle has to be physically available at the most convenient launch location for that particular type of orbit. Remember, Vandenberg gives NASA polar orbital insertion capability, and KSC can put the shuttle in equatorial orbits. What if the shuttle is on the “wrong” end of the country?
It’s not the Pony Express
On 15 February 1977, NASA Dryden fitted dorsal struts on a Boeing 747 aircraft to carry the 100-ton orbiters. This aircraft carries the shuttles across the U.S. and even to foreign venues when necessary. It is designated the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), and, though overland transfer is possible, the SCA is the preferred method for transporting an orbiter long distances (http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/technology/sts-newsref/sts_overview.html). If this is something you have never remotely considered, think about the thousands of dedicated scientists, engineers and other employees of NASA who make all of the gee-whiz stuff possible. There is more to come in the future, including new vehicles to replace the aged shuttle fleet. Now you know more about the space program than ninety percent of the world. Stay tuned!