Hanging Onto The World’s Greatest Piggyback Ride.

We were really sad to see NASA retire the Space Shuttle. Even though it’s being replaced with some new and exciting hardware, we have fond memories of the Shuttle program. The good news is that a lot of the old hardware can now be seen up close and personal. [Brady Haran] recently took a video tour of one of the iconic pieces of hardware from the Shuttle program, the Shuttle Carrier N905NA.

NASA purchased the Boeing 747-100 in 1974 from American Airlines, and by 1976 the jumbo jet was put on a strict diet in preparations to carry the shuttle on it’s back for transportation and initial testing. She was stripped of her interior (all but few first class seats), sound deadening, air conditioning, and baggage compartment. Vertical fins on the tail were added for yaw stability, and the four Pratt and Whitney turbofans were upgraded to more powerful units. The fuselage was strengthened, and mounting points for the shuttle added. Even with all the weight savings, it severely limited the 747’s range from about 5000 miles to about 1000 miles while the orbiter was on it’s back. The aircraft was retired from service after ferrying the Shuttles to their final destinations in 2012.

In the video after the break, you can take a short tour of the N905NA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston where they are preparing it for public display. Visitors will be able to tour the 747 (with exhibits inside the fuselage), and a very accurate mock-up of the shuttle that sits atop.

27 thoughts on “Hanging Onto The World’s Greatest Piggyback Ride.

  1. Truly a hardware hack.
    But I was amazed the wheels were so tiny, comparatively, rather than feeling they are large like the host did.
    I also liked how the cover for where the elevator used to be was seemingly secured with duct tape.
    And what I never actually heard about or saw was how the hell they got the shuttle on and off the thing, that bit seems always to be omitted from any presentation like when they show it on discovery or something.

          1. So I wasn’t so crazy after all.
            Thanks for the additional picture, it’s interesting to see, also because of the rig they added to the crane to hold it.

          1. I skipped over the fact that eventually there were two. But yes, the other one is mothballed, and is being used for parts) – as far as the “Black side down” – I couldn’t find a non-copyrighted pic to include – love that too!

    1. When I was 12 years old, I was shown the cockpit of the 727 after the flight. I was handed a deck of cards and a set of plastic pilot’s wings, and then left to my own devices alone in the cockpit for 15 minutes!

      You can bet that this sort of thing never happens anymore…

  2. The pair used to make a stop at Eglin AFB on their way back to Kennedy. I remember seeing it as a child. Much more graceful than I thought it would be, taking off and in flight. Must have been due to all of the extra lift provided by the orbiter…

      1. Yeah, the shuttle orbiter really doesn’t have much lift relative to its weight. It was described by those who flew them as a “flying brick” if memory serves. It certainly wouldn’t contribute enough additional lift to overcome it’s own weight at the relatively low speeds that the 747 would be taking off at, if any at all as they were probably operating below the orbiter’s stall speed during takeoff and landing.

        1. It is essentially an un-powered glider and lands conventionally. Normal 747 takes off at a around 180 knots. The STS stall speed is around 150-250 knots (depends on quite a few factors, actually). This makes assisted lift look plausible. Even if it’s a net loss, the STS is still helping out. Of course, there is a LOT of unaccounted for physics here.

  3. Interestingly, the Soviets, for their Buran shuttle program, built an aircraft explicitly designed for long distance transport of not only the Buran orbiter but also its Zenit booster rockets. This is the Antonov An-225 Myra, the longest and heaviest airplane ever built. While the Buran program failed to get off the ground due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the An-225 is used today to transport cargo too large for any other carrier.

    1. Amusing touch.

      I also find it interesting how the panels all have different discolorations and it looks like some classic SciFi illustration spaceship because of that, like it’s been through some space fight or very long journey.

    1. They did land on the east coast; the main landing site was Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Or did you mean west coast? Either way, they also landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. There are numerous airstrips worldwide that the shuttle could have landed at (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_space_shuttle_landing_sites and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_abort_modes#Emergency_landing_sites) but facilities varied and those sites with the best facilities were given priority (outside of an extreme emergency situation where the site closest to current trajectory would be preferred) and thus most sites never ended up actually being used.

  4. Just a bit of info. The extra tail was necessary because the shuttle’s body would have created some turbulence right into where the original tail of the plane was, and that would have made steering the plane while carrying the shuttle much harder.

  5. As a kid I got a shuttle glue together kit. It included a photocopy of a blueprint of the shuttle from 1976! So the original design was made with pen and paper I would imagine!

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