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Shuttle Carrier Aircraft

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Before the space shuttle Discovery made its farewell flyover this week, it had to be attached to a 747 in what NASA calls the mate-demate device at the Kennedy Space center in Florida. The Boeing 747, called the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), was an ordinary commercial jet before being modified at NASA to transport shuttles between earthbound locations.

Observers gathered along the coast to watch as the SCA escorted the Discovery shuttle to Washington, where Discovery will be on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It’s not surprising that Discovery looks a little worse for the wear: In 39 different missions, Discovery orbited the Earth 5,830 times and traveled 148,221,675 miles. Highlights of the shuttle’s career include deploying the Hubble Space Telescope, completing the first space-shuttle rendezvous and the final shuttle docking with the Russian space station Mir. Discovery also docked with the International Space Station 13 times and supplied more than 31,000 pounds of hardware for the space laboratory.


The SCA and the space shuttle Discovery on the ramp of the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Earlier, the duo backed out of the mate-demate device. Known as the MDD, the device is a large gantry-like steel structure used to hoist a shuttle off the ground and position it onto the back of the aircraft, or SCA. NASA/Kim Shiflett


The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft carrying space shuttle Discovery backs out of the Shuttle Landing Facility’s mate-demate device at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA/Kim Shiflett


The SCA transporting space shuttle Discovery to its new home takes off from the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at about 7 a.m. EDT. The duo fly south over Brevard County’s beach communities for residents to get a look at the shuttle before it leaves the Space Coast for the last time. NASA/Jim Grossmann


Workers use two cranes to position the sling that will be used to demate the space shuttle Discovery at the Apron W area of Washington Dulles international Airport in Sterling, Va. NASA/Bill Ingalls


The space shuttle Discovery is suspended from a sling held by two cranes after the SCA was pushed back from underneath at Washington Dulles International Airport, Thursday, April 19, 2012, in Sterling, VA. NASA/Bill Ingalls

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Starting next month, NASA will begin delivering its four Space Shuttle orbiters to their final destinations. After an extensive decommissioning process, the fleet -- which includes three former working spacecraft and one test orbiter -- is nearly ready for public display. On April 17, the shuttle Discovery will be attached to a modified 747 Jumbo Jet for transport to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Virginia. Endeavour will go to Los Angeles in mid-September, and in early 2013, Atlantis will take its place on permanent display at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. Test orbiter Enterprise will fly to New York City next month. Gathered here are images of NASA's final days spent processing the Space Shuttle fleet. [35 photos]

In Orbiter Processing Facility-2 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the flight deck of space shuttle Atlantis is illuminated one last time during preparations to power down Atlantis during Space Shuttle Program transition and retirement activities, on December 22, 2011. Atlantis is being prepared for public display in 2013 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. (NASA/Jim Grossmann)

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Jan. 31, 1977: A horse and rider watch as the space shuttle Enterprise is towed from a Rockwell International facility in Palmdale to Edwards Air Force Base for a year of flight tests. Townspeople lined the route for a glimpse of the 110-ton shuttle. A 90-wheel transport was used and accompanied by a 20-vehicle convoy.

Never fitted with engines or a working heat shield, the Enterprise was not launched into orbit — it was only used for testing. The craft was used in a series of approach and landing tests — carried aloft in a 747, released and glided to landings at Edwards. Later the Enterprise was used for static tests in Alabama and California.

Los Angeles Times science writer George Alexander covered the public introduction of Enterprise. In the Sept. 18, 1976, edition, he reported:

To the theme music from the now-defunct television series “Star Trek,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration rolled out the first Space Shuttle vehicle at Palmdale Friday and proclaimed the start of a new era in space transportation.

“Ain’t she a beat?” said NASA Associated Administrator John F. Yardley as the big black, white and gray spaceship was towed around the corner of a hangar at Rockwell International Corp.’s Palmdale facility and brought to a halt before a crowd of about 2,000 people…

….some of the actors who appeared in the “Star Trek” series were present. President Ford recently yielded to the petitions of many “Trekkies,” as devotees of the series call themselves, and named the orbiter “Enterprise” after the fictional spaceship flown by the “Star Trek” crew.

Space agency officials had planned to name the space shuttle “Constitution” both in honor of the historic U.S. document and in honor of the early American warship, but were overruled at the last minute by President Ford.

In 1985, Enterprise was transferred to the Smithsonian Institute.

Current plans are for the shuttle Discovery to go to the Smithsonian, with the Enterprise being transferred to the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York City. The retired Endeavour shuttle is scheduled to come to the California Science Center in Los Angeles by the end of 2012.

All of the images in the above photo gallery were taken by Los Angeles Times photographers except one — the “Star Trek” cast is from NASA.

Additional images from NASA are in this space shuttle photo gallery.

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With the flight of Atlantis, the 30-year-plus space shuttle program comes to an end. Six shuttles — five operational and one test vehicle — were built. Two, the Challenger and Columbia, were lost in accidents, killing 14 crew members. The remaining four shuttles will be retired to museums.

This gallery consists of over 50 images released by NASA from the years 1972-2011. Most come from a package moved by Reuters earlier in June. A few others come from Associated Press. I added one important image — the Columbia breakup during reentry — shot by Dr. Scott Lieberman and moved to AP by the Tyler (Texas) Morning Telegraph.

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From its first launch 30 years ago to its final launch scheduled for next Friday, NASA's Space Shuttle program has seen moments of dizzying inspiration and of crushing disappointment. When next week's launch is complete, the program will have sent up 135 missions, ferrying more than 350 humans and thousands of tons of material and equipment into low Earth orbit. Fourteen astronauts have lost their lives along the way -- the missions have always been risky, the engineering complex, the hazards extreme. As we near the end of the program, I'd like to look back at the past few decades of shuttle development and missions as we await the next steps toward human space flight. [61 photos]

Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off from Kennedy Space Center, on April 12, 1981. Commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen were onboard STS-1, the first orbital flight of the Space Shuttle program. (Reuters/NASA/KSC)

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