NASA Podcasts

The Shuttle's Unique Finish Line
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George Diller/NASA Public Affairs: To a space shuttle commander returning with a crew from orbit, the sight is unmistakable: three miles of straight, smooth concrete running northwest to southeast on the swampy shores of a triangular island on Florida's Atlantic Coast. It is NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility, a welcoming expanse that marked the finish line for space shuttle missions beginning in 1984.

Landing Commentator: Touchdown.


Stephen Frick/STS-122 Commander: It's a very different experience. I mean, the shuttle's coming in as a glider, so we're very interested after we do our deorbit burn on the other side of the world, basically, of tracking our progress very carefully across the Pacific and then across Mexico and the Caribbean as we come into the Kennedy Space Center. And then once you get close to the Kennedy Space Center, coming in on that steep dive, lining up with the runway and getting it touched down much faster than an airliner or even a tactical jet would touch down.

George Diller/NASA Public Affairs: The largest and smallest airplanes of the day have used the runway for takeoffs and landings, but it was built for a winged craft in particular, one returning from space. That craft would become NASA's space shuttles.

Larry Parker/Air Traffic Controller: When they built this particular runway, the orbiter hadn't been designed, it was still a concept, so they went about making the absolute best all-weather runway they possibly could.

George Diller/NASA Public Affairs: At about 15,000 feet long and three hundred feet across, the Shuttle Landing Facility is among the longest runways ever built. It's also one of the strongest, thanks to concrete 16 inches thick in the center.

Ken Hooks/Air Traffic Controller: Anything can land here, any aircraft, any weight class can land out here.

George Diller/NASA Public Affairs: NASA began construction on the runway in April 1974 about two miles northeast of the Vehicle Assembly Building, carving and shaping the strip out of the swamplands. The Shuttle Landing Facility opened to aircraft in 1976.

Larry Parker/Air Traffic Controller: Yeah, you can see it for a long, long way. In fact, we've got pictures you can actually see this runway from space without too much problem on a nice clear day.

George Diller/NASA Public Affairs: A space shuttle returns from orbit as a glider, so astronauts only get one chance to land the spacecraft.

Ken Hooks/Air Traffic Controller: I had an opportunity to fly with the, what they call the Shuttle Training Aircraft, which goes up and makes practice approaches for the astronauts to train. And I had an opportunity to go up into that and actually make a dive as you would in the orbiter. And it's a normal aircraft is 3 degrees, we were doing anywhere from 19 to about 22 degrees. So, it's just almost like a rock falling at the ground.

George Diller/NASA Public Affairs: That's one reason the shuttle's runway was built with plenty of room to spare. Another is that the shuttle touches down much faster than an airliner. Shuttle wheels typically hit the runway at about 230 mph, compared to an airliner's landing velocity of around 150.

James P. Dutton Jr./STS-131 Pilot: Well, yeah, it's a large aircraft, and so I sort of expected it would be a little bit more sluggish. And, you know, in rule, the STA is a little bit more sluggish than the actual vehicle was. So, when I took control, I actually got to make a few inputs. The nose needed to come up a little bit and rolled in a little bit, and during all those inputs, it felt more like a fighter than a heavy airplane. So, the controls are very responsive in the shuttle.

Landing Commentator: Main gear touchdown.

George Diller/NASA Public Affairs: To the people who watch over a shuttle's return, there's simply nothing like it.

Larry Parker/Air Traffic Controller: It's surprising how steep and how fast it's moving. You're used to looking at airplanes that are approaching at typically 120, 140 knots for a typical jet with a touchdown around 90. The orbiter's coming down on final at about 300 knots, about 18,000 feet a minute rate of descent and he's crossing the threshold at about 200 knots. So, it happens really, really fast.

George Diller/NASA Public Affairs: On days when there is not a space shuttle returning, the airfield, or spaceport, is obviously not as busy, but there seems to always be something going on.

Larry Parker/Air Traffic Controller: Well, obviously we're not as busy as most other airfields. You know, we're not Chicago-O'Hare out here, but we do things that are totally unique in the air traffic control field. You don't work shuttle trainers at a normal airport, some of the experimental things that we've done, the research and development things, are pretty unique to this facility.

George Diller/NASA Public Affairs: The runway at Kennedy has hosted renowned aeronautic explorers, including Steve Fossett and his "GlobalFlyer." Fossett took off from the Shuttle Landing Facility in February 2006 and completed a record-breaking solo flight around the world and across the Atlantic a second time. Exotic aircraft are not strangers to the ramp at Kennedy. Nor are strange aircraft combinations.

Ken Hooks/Air Traffic Controller: The 747 with the orbiter is really impressive to me. It's almost more impressive to watch that land than to watch a launch because an aircraft like that carrying another aircraft can fly. That's amazing. When you look at the size of that, you just wonder how in the world that thing can get off the ground.

George Diller/NASA Public Affairs: The runway also is used by vehicles without wings.

Larry Parker/Air Traffic Controller: So, it makes a great testbed for things like NASCAR who have been out here doing some straight line testing.

Dan Olson/Aerodynamics Engineer: It's really been a nice facility so far for us to use. It's a very flat surface that works very well for us. The data that we're getting is very good. Not bumpy like a lot of the tracks we're used to.

George Diller/NASA Public Affairs: For the air traffic controllers at NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility, the opportunity is one-of-a-kind.

Ken Hooks/Air Traffic Controller: I remember looking across the river, they were getting ready for a moon shot. And I remember looking over there, thinking about that, never dreaming that I'd end up working right here and being part of this space program.

Larry Parker/Air Traffic Controller: That was really exciting, the first time you get to see a shuttle land, and it's something you never really get used to. It never becomes mundane, and you know, it's always an exciting thing whether it's a day landing, a night landing.

George Diller/NASA Public Affairs: The shuttle's retirement will not end the Shuttle Landing Facility's career. The runway is already hosting space tourism and research firms conducting high-speed and microgravity flights. Such opportunities are expected to pick up for the one-of-a-kind runway with a unique history.

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