Employees of NASA’s White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) were inspired to see the Space Shuttle Atlantis circle overhead on Monday, June 1, 2009 when the ferry flight from Edwards Air Force Base in California to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida included a swing by WSTF in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
“I was in awe; I had never seen the space shuttle before or that close. Even in flight, it was pretty amazing!” said Lisa Ortiz, a technical editor assistant at the test facility.
Only eight more shuttle flights are scheduled until the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2010. Atlantis’ mission was extended an extra two days, in hopes that stormy weather conditions over Central Florida would clear enough to allow a landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA gave up on May 24 and diverted Atlantis to its secondary landing site in California’s Mojave Desert, and Atlantis became the 53rd shuttle to land there.
This is the second shuttle ferry ride in the past three missions, but the fact remains that the ferry rides are becoming rare.
NASA’s White Sands Test Facility also manages the White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH), where astronauts practice landing in a specially modified Gulfstream jet known as the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) that simulates the flight characteristics of the space shuttle. On a typical training mission, the astronauts arrive at the El Paso International Airport-NASA Hangar where they trade their T-38 training planes in for the STA to practice landing over the white sands of the space harbor. The space harbor is one of two backup landing sites, the other being Edwards Air Force Base in California. The Space Shuttle Columbia landed at WSSH in 1982.
Atlantis weighed in at 151,315 pounds when attached to the specially modified Boeing 747. It’s attached at three points, the same ones that hold it to the external tank for its ride into orbit.
“This setup [Atlantis riding atop a Boeing 747] is an amazing solution to landing elsewhere and then transporting the shuttle back to the Cape,” reflected Paul Spencer, a metallurgical engineer at WSTF. “It was great to see that they remembered us and it was a great highlight for us to see it flying over.”
The White Sands Test Facility specializes in testing and evaluation of potentially hazardous materials, components, and rocket propulsion systems for the Space Shuttle Program, International Space Station Program, Constellation Program, and other primarily government customers.
“I got chills when I saw it,” said Eddie Tafoya, a chemistry and metallurgy technician. “I had a sense of pride to think that we are hands on for the Space Shuttle Program.”
Don Gonzalez, a flight hardware mechanical engineer, said, “Impressive! I’ve never seen the shuttle in person before.”
Patrick O’Donnell, a metrology specialist, said, “It was amazing; fascinating!”
Tom Reeves, a chemistry and metallurgy technician, agreed with Tafoya. “It made me feel patriotic and proud to see it.”
After an overnight stop at Biggs Army Airfield in El Paso, TX about 45 miles south of WSTF, Atlantis finished her piggyback ride back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday, capping off a successful mission servicing the Hubble Space Telescope.