In front of a spectacular desert sunset, technicians in the Mate-Demate Device (MDD) at NASA Dryden mount Space Shuttle Atlantis atop NASA's 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 911 for its ferry flight back to the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., following its STS-44 mission in late 1991. The shuttles and SCA 911 have been retired, and the MDD is soon to be dismantled as disposition of shuttle assets wraps up. (NASA photo) › View Larger Image
The lights were turned off, the door was locked and the key was turned in on the Space Shuttle Program at Dryden on March 29, 2013, as the transition and retirement phase of the program ended.
Although the orbiters were retired after Space Shuttle Atlantis completed STS-135 in July 2011, shuttle assets needed to be inventoried and prepared for disposition, the remaining orbiters delivered to museums and the program shut down. That's now essentially complete. The remaining tasks involve Dryden logistics personnel clearing out the remaining shuttle assets that have been turned in to them for disposition.
"It's a surreal time, sending people home on a contract that has been around for such a long time," said George Grimshaw, the last shuttle support operations manager and shuttle transition manager at Dryden. He referred to the Space Shuttle Landing and Research Aircraft Support Services contract held by Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Services that ended March 31. The contract had different names and evolving tasks over the years, but had continued at Dryden since 1968.
In addition to supporting shuttle development and the approach and landing test flights of the shuttle prototype Enterprise, Dryden was the main site for early landings of the shuttle program. It then became the main backup site for shuttle landings when the weather wasn't good at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.
"People are shocked when you say the shuttles are not flying any more and they're in museums," Grimshaw noted.
An example of one shuttle-related item is the overland transporter used to move every shuttle assembled at Rockwell International (now Boeing) Space Systems' facility at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale to NASA Dryden – all except Endeavour, that is.
Endeavour, the last shuttle to be built, was gently lifted with the Orbiter Lifting Frame, a bare-bones structure at Plant 42, to the back of a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and flown directly to Kennedy Space Center. After the overland transporter was last used for Atlantis' journey to Dryden in 1985, it collected dust near the southwest corner of Dryden's Mate Demate Device (MDD) for almost 27 years.
Ironically, the overland transporter was brought back to service to carry Endeavour on its final 12-mile journey from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where it is now a science center artifact.
"It sat out in the desert, it was dusty and the paint faded. It was disassembled, inspected and reassembled for use," Grimshaw said.
The shuttle Crew Transport Vehicle – a converted people-mover obtained from Dulles International Airport near Washington in 1990 – leaves NASA Dryden in January 2013 on its way to Bldg. 1864 at Edwards pending eventual display at the Air Force Test Center Museum. (NASA / Jim Ross) › View Larger Image The MDD at Dryden, used to hoist the orbiters onto NASA's 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, is unique among the three built - one at Kennedy Space Center and the Orbiter Lifting Frame first built at Vandenberg Air Force Base and later transferred to the shuttle facilities in Palmdale before it was taken down a few years ago. It also differed from the other MDDs because it had additional capability for servicing the shuttles following a landing at Edwards.
Since the Dryden MDD was no longer required, the decision was made to have it dismantled. However, the State of California considers it a historical asset, so an extensive documentation process known as recordation was required before the MDD could be dismantled. Dryden's Environmental Office led the effort, which included a written report and photo and video documentation provided by Dryden's photo and video departments.
The lengthy effort to document the facility started in late 2010 and included interviews, high-resolution images and footage of the MDD in use. The footage includes the process of an orbiter being towed into the MDD through its lift onto the back of a NASA 747 SCA, backing out of the facility, taxiing to the runway and takeoff.
The state historical preservation office recently signed off on the recordation, Grimshaw reported. Once state approval is received, the MDD along with several of the former space shuttle offices and facilities are slated for demolition late this year or in early 2014. The main shuttle hangar and Bldg. 4859, at least for now, are home of The Boeing Company's Phantom Eye project.
Also of interest is the Crew Transfer Vehicle used for initial medical checks and then to move astronauts from the orbiter to Dryden medical facilities after an Edwards landing. The CTV was a Kennedy asset operated by Dryden-based United Space Alliance personnel and maintained by Lockheed Martin and Kay and Associates technicians.
The CTV arrived at Dryden in 1990 after service as a people mover at Dulles International Airport. Most of the people mover bench seats were removed and the interior modified. It has now found a new home at the Air Force Test Center Museum at Edwards and is temporarily located at Building 1864 next to the Air Force's Orbiter Crew Module mock-up pending eventual display at the museum.
It was originally estimated that Dryden had 3,200 line items of shuttle assets, but that number swelled to well over 6,000 line items as the inventory of shuttle-related assets continued, Grimshaw said. The inventory ranged from the large vehicles used to power, purge toxic fuels and cool the orbiter and other ground support equipment to items like gloves, tools fixtures and light bulbs.
The number of individual items is actually much higher, he explained, because light bulbs might be one line item, but there might be 50 of one kind and 100 of another. In fact, some of the payload processing assets totaled 268 line items, but contained 16,000 individual pieces of lab equipment, mostly glassware.
"The list of line items doesn't begin to capture the enormity of the individual pieces," he added.
One of the larger remaining assets is the last flyable NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, No. 905. Johnson Space Center in Houston is working on a proposal to put the aircraft on public display at Ellington Airport near JSC or other appropriate location.
As Dryden's role comes to a close, Grimshaw offered a few final thoughts:
"It's been a good ride," he reflected. "The shuttle program was a showcase of American ingenuity and employed so many people. No matter what their role was in the program, they had a sense of pride in their work.
"People lined the streets of Los Angeles to get a glimpse of Endeavour as it rolled down the streets to the California Science Center," Grimshaw added. "That shows that the shuttle program continues to touch lives. It will also continue to inspire young people the way it inspired those of us who worked on the shuttle program."
The Overland Transporter strongback frame that carried the space shuttles from Enterprise to Atlantis as they were towed 37 miles from their final assembly in Palmdale to NASA Dryden at Edwards was reused to carry shuttle Endeavour on its final journey from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center in October 2012. (NASA / Tony Landis) › View Larger Image
Jay Levine, editor, The X-Press
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center