Shuttle Carrier Aircraft

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Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
NASA's Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 905 (front) and 911 (rear)
RoleOutsize cargo freight aircraft
ManufacturerBoeing (aircraft & modifications)
StatusRetired 2012
Primary userNASA
Number built2
Developed fromBoeing 747-100
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Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
NASA's Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 905 (front) and 911 (rear)
RoleOutsize cargo freight aircraft
ManufacturerBoeing (aircraft & modifications)
StatusRetired 2012
Primary userNASA
Number built2
Developed fromBoeing 747-100

The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) are two extensively modified Boeing 747 airliners that NASA used to transport Space Shuttle orbiters. One is a 747-100 model, while the other is a short range 747-100SR.

The SCAs were used to ferry Space Shuttles from landing sites back to the Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, and to and from other locations too distant for the orbiters to be delivered by ground transport. The orbiters were placed on top of the SCAs by Mate-Demate Devices, large gantry-like structures that hoisted the orbiters off the ground for post-flight servicing then mated them with the SCAs for ferry flights.

In approach and landing test flights conducted in 1977, a test shuttle was released from an SCA during flight and glided to a landing under its own control.[1]


Design and development

The Lockheed C-5 Galaxy was considered for the shuttle-carrier role by NASA, but rejected in favor of the 747—in part due to the 747's low-wing design in comparison to the C-5's high-wing design, and also because the U.S. Air Force would have retained ownership of the C-5, while NASA could own the 747s outright.

Shuttle Carrier Aircraft N905NA, in American Airlines livery, with Enterprise in 1978.

The first aircraft, a Boeing 747-100 registered N905NA, was originally manufactured for American Airlines and still carried visible American side stripes while testing Enterprise in the 1970s. It was acquired in 1974 and initially used for trailing wake vortex research as part of a broader study by NASA Dryden, as well as Shuttle tests involving an F-104 flying in close formation and simulating a "release" from the 747. The aircraft appears in the background of a scene from The Six Million Dollar Man's second season episode "The Deadly Replay", which was filmed in 1974 at Edwards AFB.

The aircraft was extensively modified by Boeing in 1976.[2] While first-class seats were kept for NASA passengers, its main cabin and insulation were stripped,[3] mounting struts added, and the fuselage strengthened. Vertical stabilizers were added to the tail to aid stability when the Orbiter was being carried. The avionics and engines were also upgraded, and an escape tunnel system similar to that used on Boeing's first 747 test flights was added. The flight crew escape tunnel system was later removed following the completion of the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) due to concerns over possible engine ingestion of an escaping crew member.

Atlantis being mated to SCA N911NA at Dryden Flight Research Center

Flying with the additional drag and weight of the Orbiter imposed significant fuel and altitude penalties. The range was reduced to 1,000 nautical miles (1,850 km), compared to an unladen range of 5500 nautical miles (10,100 km), requiring an SCA to stop several times to refuel on a transcontinental flight.[4] Without the Orbiter, the SCA needed to carry ballast to balance out its center of gravity.[3] The SCA had an altitude ceiling of 15,000 feet and a maximum cruise speed of Mach 0.6 with the orbiter attached.[4] A crew of 170 took a week to prepare the shuttle and SCA for flight.[5]

Columbia atop SCA N905NA, flying by the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), 1990. N905NA no longer has American Airlines' pinstriping.

Studies were conducted to equip the SCA with aerial refueling equipment, a modification already made to the U.S. Air Force E-4 (modified 747-200s) and 747 tanker transports for the IIAF. However, during formation flying with a tanker aircraft to test refueling approaches, minor cracks were spotted on the tailfin of N905NA. While these were not likely to have been caused by the test flights, it was felt that there was no sense taking unnecessary risks. Since there was no urgent need to provide an aerial refueling capacity, the tests were suspended.

By 1983, SCA N905NA no longer bore the distinct American Airlines red, white, and blue cheatline. NASA replaced it with its own livery, consisting of a white fuselage and a single blue cheatline.[6] That year, this aircraft was also used to fly Enterprise on a tour in Europe, with refuelling stops in Goose Bay, Canada; Keflavik, Iceland; England; and West Germany. It then went to the Paris Air Show.[7]

In 1988, in the wake of the Challenger accident, NASA procured a surplus 747-100SR from Japan Airlines. Registered N911NA it entered service with NASA in 1990 after undergoing modifications similar to N905NA. It was first used in 1991 to ferry the new shuttle Endeavour from the manufacturers in Palmdale, California to Kennedy Space Center.

Humorous note on Orbiter Mount reminding technicians how to connect the orbiter to the transport.

Based at the Dryden Flight Research Center within Edwards Air Force Base in California[3] the two aircraft were functionally identical, although N911NA has five upper-deck windows on each side, while N905NA has only two. The rear mounting points on both aircraft were labeled with humorous instructions to "Attach Orbiter Here" or "Place Orbiter Here", clarified by the precautionary note "Black Side Down".[8][9]

Shuttle Carriers were capable of operating from alternate shuttle landing sites such as those in the United Kingdom, Spain, and France. Due to the reduced range of the Shuttle Carrier while mated to an orbiter, additional preparations such as removal of the payload from the orbiter may have been necessary to reduce its weight.[10]

Silhouettes listing the number of ferry and free flights of the various Orbiters and the Phantom Ray on the port side of the SCA.

Boeing transported its Phantom Ray unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) demonstrator from St. Louis, Missouri, to Edwards on a Shuttle Carrier on December 11, 2010.[11]

Shuttle Carrier N911NA retired on February 8, 2012 after its final mission to the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California, and will be used as a source of parts for NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).[12]

Shuttle Carrier N905NA was used to ferry the retired Shuttles to their respective museums. It retired at the Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base in California after a short flight from Los Angeles International Airport on September 24, 2012. It now joins N911NA as a source of spare parts for NASA's SOFIA aircraft.[13][14]


SCA 3-view schematic

Data from Boeing 747-100 specifications[15] Jenkins 2000[4]

General characteristics


Ferry flights

Ferry flights generally originated at Edwards Air Force Base in California or on rare occasions White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico following missions which landed there, especially in the early days of the Space Shuttle program or when weather at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Kennedy Space Center prevented ending missions there. Flights generally ended at the SLF. A number of flights began at the Dryden Flight Research Center following delivery of the orbiter from Rockwell International to NASA from the nearby facilities in Palmdale, California. [16]

The last ferry flight with Endeavour started on September 19, 2012 with flight from Kennedy Space Center to Ellington Field. The second leg on September 20, 2012 Ellington Field to Edwards Air Force Base. The third and final leg was flown on September 21, 2012 when it departed Edwards Air Force Base and headed north along the California central valley, conducted a circuit over Sacramento, and then proceeded to the San Francisco Bay Area. In the Bay Area, the flight proceeded along the east side of the bay, passing over Oakland, Berkeley, El Cerrito, and Richmond before crossing the bay and conducting two loops over San Francisco, passing over the Golden Gate Bridge each time. The flight then proceeded south along the west side of the bay, conducting a low fly-over at NASA Ames Research Center/Moffett Air Field before turning towards the coast and following the coast to Los Angeles. As it approached the Los Angeles area, the SCA/Endeavour conducted flyovers of various landmarks in the greater LA region, including the Hollywood Sign and the Griffith Observatory. As it approached from the south along the Pacific coast, it also passed over several communities, provided sighting opportunities for thousands of spectators.


See also

Related development
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
Related lists


  1. ^ NASA - Dryden Flight Research Center (1977). "Shuttle Enterprise Free Flight". NASA. Retrieved November 28, 2007. 
  2. ^ Jenkins 2000, pp. 36-38.
  3. ^ a b c Brack, Jon (2012-09-17). "Inside the Space Shuttle Carrier Aircraft". National Geographic. Retrieved September 17, 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c Jenkins 2000, pp. 38-39.
  5. ^ Felix Gilette (9 August 2005). "How Does the Space Shuttle Fly Home?". Retrieved 2007-11-23. 
  6. ^ Comparison of photos taken in 1982 and 1983 at
  7. ^
  8. ^ 2003 Edwards Air Force Base Air Show, see Shuttle Carrier images.
  9. ^ Shuttle Carrier Aircraft N911NA album on Photobucket
  10. ^ "Space Shuttle Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) Sites". National Aeronautics and Space Administration. December 2006. Retrieved 2009-07-01. 
  11. ^ Boeing Phantom Ray to catch shuttle ride at Lambert
  12. ^ NASA's Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 911's Final Flight
  13. ^ NASA's Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 911's Final Flight
  14. ^ [1] A graphic history of 35 years of space shuttle ferry flights now adorns the upper forward fuselage of NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 905. (NASA / Tony Landis)
  15. ^ Boeing 747-100 Technical Specifications, Boeing
  16. ^ "STS Chronology". NASA. 


External links