As the processing and launch site of the Space Shuttle, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida is also the preferred end-of-mission landing site for the Space Shuttle orbiter. Landing at Kennedy saves processing time and eliminates the need to return an orbiter to Kennedy from an alternate landing site.
Edwards Air Force Base in California is the prime backup landing site for the Space Shuttle because of its stable and predictable weather conditions. After a landing at Edwards, the orbiter returns to Kennedy atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a modified Boeing 747.
Image to left: The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, with its piggyback cargo the orbiter Atlantis, is towed to a parking area after landing at Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility, concluding a flight from Edwards Air Force Base in California. Credit: NASA
The landing site must be chosen more than an hour before touchdown, when the de-orbit burn takes place. A switch in sites can be made up to 90 minutes before landing.
About the size of a DC-9 jetliner, a Space Shuttle orbiter is essentially a glider during its unpowered re-entry and landing. Because it lacks the power to make a second try, each landing must be perfect the first time.
About an hour before landing, an orbiter's journey home to Kennedy begins with a de-orbit burn above the opposite side of Earth. Approximately half an hour before touchdown, the orbiter begins entering the atmosphere at an altitude of about 400,000 feet. At approximately 45,000 feet, the orbiter starts to maneuver into the landing approach corridor. As it nears the landing site, the commander takes manual control of the vehicle.
Its flight path upon entering the atmosphere and approaching the landing site varies depending on the inclination of launch. Low-inclination missions typically begin the re-entry process over the Indian Ocean, then cross the Pacific, Mexico, southern Texas and the Gulf before reaching Florida.
Space Shuttles launched into higher orbits typically follow a different pattern, and the ground track varies depending on where re-entry occurs. The orbiter may parallel the northeast Florida coast after cutting across Georgia, or fly over the Florida Everglades and up the southeast coast of the state.
Image to right: Runway lights cast a rainbow from the colors in the drag chute behind Atlantis as it lands at the Shuttle Landing Facility, completing mission
STS-104. Credit: NASA
As the vehicle slices through the atmosphere at velocities greater than the speed of sound, the sonic boom thunders across the Florida landscape, heralding the Space Shuttle's return. The sound is actually two distinct claps produced by compressed air in front of the nose and wings, which create shock waves that spread away from the aircraft.
The Space Shuttle orbiter's main landing gear touches down on the runway at 213 to 226 miles per hour. As the nose pitches down and makes contact with the runway, a 40-foot drag chute is deployed from the vehicle's aft end, and the orbiter rolls to a stop.
Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility was specially designed for returning Space Shuttle orbiters. At 15,000 feet long and 300 feet wide, the concrete runway is larger than those at most commercial airports. Although a single landing strip, it is considered two runways, since the orbiter could approach from the northwest or the southeast.
Image to left: Space Shuttle Endeavour is surrounded by vehicles from the landing convoy at the conclusion of mission STS-113. Credit: NASA
Although on call during an entire mission in case of an early landing, the Orbiter Convoy normally begins recovery operations about two hours before the orbiter is scheduled to land.
The team that recovers the orbiter is primarily composed of Kennedy personnel, regardless of where the landing takes place. About 150 trained personnel assist the crew, "safe" the orbiter and tow it to the Orbiter Processing Facility, where it will begin processing for its next mission.