AIN Blog: To Boldly Go Where No Shuttle has Gone Before...

 - May 21, 2012, 2:42 PM
Enterprise on back of NASA shuttle carrier 747
As Enterprise soared over the New York City area, all eyes were trained on the skies. (Photo: Mike Lesaski)

“Tranquility Base here, the Enterprise has landed.”

While it might not have been as dramatic as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touching down on the moon, for New York City, April 27 was known as the day the city got a space shuttle. I had hoped to personally view the arrival of the space shuttle Enterprise piggybacked on its modified 747 carrier, but several days of weather-related delays made it unworkable in my schedule. Instead I listened to the radio as reporters breathlessly described the sight. It zoomed majestically down the Hudson River and had I been home at the time I would have had a view very much like this gorgeous photo taken by the friend of an AIN staffer at Liberty State Park in New Jersey. It may be the last time Enterprise feels the rush of wind under her wings, but at least she had the world’s biggest stage, as millions craned their necks upwards to watch as she made her way to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

I initially had my misgivings as to why New York deserved an award when NASA announced the winners of its shuttle lottery (Enterprise never ventured into space; she was used as a glide demonstrator to explore the flight envelope of her future siblings). New York has never been known for its involvement in the space program outside of the occasional tickertape parade for notable astronaut crews, though USS Intrepid (onto whose deck the shuttle Enterprise will be hoisted at some point) itself served as the prime recovery ship for both Mercury and Gemini missions. Prospective museums were tasked with answering NASA’s request for proposals with plans of how the shuttles would be moved (NASA would fly them to the nearest major airport, and after that it’s the museum’s problem), how they would be displayed, and what educational programs would be associated with them.

Surely the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum would claim the pick of the litter, Discovery, the oldest surviving active shuttle, to add to its collection, which includes everything from the original Wright Brothers airplane, to the Spirit of St. Louis, to the Apollo 11 command module. Enterprise had been on display there at the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, serving as the centerpiece of the James McDonnell Space Hangar, but with the arrival of an actual space-flown shuttle, poor Enterprise was quickly “shuttled” out of the spotlight. Atlantis, the next oldest, will remain on display at the Kennedy Space Center, launch point for all of NASA’s missions. That left Endeavour, the last shuttle built, and the displaced Enterprise without homes. While NASA is currently out of the manned space mission business until the completion of its next generation of spacecraft, the agency still needs to keep up its visibility, hence the selection of museums in Los Angeles and New York, the two largest population centers in the country, where the agency can guarantee the most eyeballs on its logo. In the case of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, it attracts on average one million visitors a year, even before the addition of a space shuttle. In getting the atmosphere-bound Enterprise, some might argue the Big Apple got the lesser of the two, but Enterprise remains the oldest of the shuttles. During the investigation into the Columbia disaster on re-entry nine years ago, investigators examined parts from Enterprise as its “DNA” compared more closely to that of the ill-fated Columbia than those from newer shuttles.

Enterprise sheltered in the deicing hangar at John F. Kennedy International Airport.Enterprise was demated from the shuttle carrier last week and will remain at JFK until early June, when it will begin an odyssey that will eventually take it to Manhattan and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. According to Eric Boehm, manager of the museum’s aircraft collection, Enterprise will be towed to an area of the airport where barges of fuel for the airport’s tank farm typically tie up. Once there, land-bound cranes will hoist the shuttle and lower her onto a barge in similar fashion as the museum’s Concorde was handled years ago. The barge will then be towed to Bayonne, New Jersey, where Enterprise will be transferred to another barge with a mounted crane (the same barge could not be brought to JFK due to height restrictions) that will then carry her to the West Side of Manhattan. Once there, Enterprise will become the heaviest aircraft ever to “land” on an aircraft carrier when she is lifted and placed on the retired USS Intrepid’s flight deck. At approximately 150,000 pounds, the shuttle weighs more than twice as much as a fully loaded A3D Skywarrior, the largest aircraft ever designed to operate from an aircraft carrier. She even outweighs the KC-130F that was flight tested at max weight off the USS Forrestal in 1963. Enterprise will be positioned at the aftmost position of the flight deck, an area strengthened to withstand the violent impact of landing aircraft slamming down upon it, to support its weight.

The surreal sight of a space shuttle parked on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier won’t be visible for long, however. As part of the custodial agreement between the recipient museums and NASA, the shuttles cannot be displayed outdoors, so as soon as Enterprise has safely come aboard, the barge crane will then place an inflated protective tent over her, sheltering her from the elements and blocking her from view. Once exhibits and signage are in place, the museum expects Enterprise to go on display in her temporary home on July 19, at the height of summer tourist season. There she will remain for several years while her permanent structure is designed and built on the dock next to the veteran carrier.