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Staying Cool After Touching Down
If you were driving home from the grocery store with half a gallon of ice cream, how would you keep it from melting? You'd turn on the car's air conditioner, of course, until you were ready to remove the ice cream and transfer it to the freezer.

Now, imagine the car is actually a Shuttle orbiter that just experienced temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Suddenly, keeping things cool after the orbiter touches down -- like payloads that must be kept cold or freezing -- is a whole lot harder!

A Universal Coolant Transporter System arrives at KSCImage to left: A Universal Coolant Transporter System arrives at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Replacing the existing ground cooling unit, the UCT will provide ground cooling to the orbiter and returning payloads after landings and during transport of the payloads to other facilities. Credit: NASA-KSC

That's why United Space Alliance (USA), NASA's prime contractor for the Space Shuttle, developed the new Universal Coolant Transporter System (UCTS). Specially designed to keep the orbiter and its payloads cool, the UCTS joins the convoy of vehicles that support landing.

The first of two identical units was delivered March 18 to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

In addition to the Space Shuttle and its International Space Station payloads, the new system is also intended to service space exploration vehicles of the future.

"When we began the design of the new cooling unit, our goal was to maximize the system capability, so that it could support future space vehicles," said Bill Shearer, project manager with USA. "In light of our nation's new vision for space exploration, we are pleased that the design team had that foresight."

The UCTS replaces the existing Ground Cooling Unit, a tractor-trailer carrying a unit that pumps refrigerant into the orbiter after landing. Built in 1974, the Ground Cooling Unit lacks redundancy -- the ability to repeatedly circulate coolant -- so it can't continuously chill payloads.

A convoy of landing support vehicles gather around Discovery after a landing.Image to right: A convoy of specially designed vehicles and a team of up to 150 trained personnel gather around Discovery after mission STS-105. Post-landing operations include checking for toxic or hazardous gases and pumping in air to cool the vehicle and remove any leftover fumes. Credit: NASA-KSC

But the new system boasts more than redundancy. Automated controls make the system easier to use. Among other expanded capabilities, the UCTS can use many different types of coolants.

Built by Precision Fabrication and Cleaning in Sharpes, Fla., an identical UCTS is expected to arrive in June at the Shuttle's backup landing site, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. So, the next time a Space Shuttle orbiter touches down -- whether it's landing at KSC or Edwards -- the UCTS will be there to help the orbiter and its payloads chill out.

For more information on how a Shuttle lands, visit:
Anna Heiney
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center