Aviation News

March 16, 2012

Photos: Space Shuttles Discovery and Atlantis Meet One Last Time

Space Shuttle Discovery passes Atlantis on her journey to the VAB, and later, the Smithsonian. For a brief few seconds, the two spacecraft were a few feet apart, a scene which will never be replicated.
For a brief few seconds, Space Shuttles Atlantis and Discovery were a few feet apart, a scene which will never be replicated. (Photo by Suresh A. Atapattu/ATAPATTU.NET)
The following is a special submission to NYCAviation from Space Columnist Suresh Atapattu of Florida Skies.

On a dull morning last week, two teams of orbiter technicians simultaneously gathered at two iconic buildings—the 525-foot Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the shorter, but equally important, Orbital Processing Facility 1 (OPF-1) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Each team was tasked with moving a space shuttle orbiter from one building to the other thus effectively swapping their positions. The “shuttle shuffle” would have Space Shuttle Discovery (the oldest and most flown orbiter surviving in the 3 ship fleet) in OPF-1 swapping places with her sister ship, Atlantis, which is the second oldest and second most flown orbiter.

>> SEE PHOTOS BELOW

This was no ordinary move, and not because it was not commonplace, but because it signaled a very important and significant milestone in the era of the approximately 40-year-old Space Transport System (aka the space shuttle program). Fleet leader Discovery would emerge from OPF-1 as a preserved spacecraft ready for museum display. She had been stripped of useful components such as the main propulsion system, corrosive and toxic chemicals had been drained from the reaction control systems and orbital maneuvering systems, the three fuel cells had been drained and the auxiliary power units had been removed and dummy exhaust nozzles had been inserted to mimic the presence of real engines. She was no longer an operational machine or even capable of ever returning to operational status due the grievous wounds inflicted. Her innards were gutted in irreversible ways as part of the preservation efforts. Replacing her in OPF-01 would be Atlantis so that she too could be mummified for eternity, too.

The transition and retirement of the STS program remains a hard process to those associated with the program in one of form of the other. Robert Cabana, four-time shuttle astronaut and current director of the Kennedy Space Center, summarized it to the Florida Today newspaper as, “We have to accept it. It’s time to move on now. What was, was. We can’t do anything about it. We have to evolve.”

The team leaders briefed each gathered team members with a final rundown of the plan. The radio waves crackled to life and the omnipresent monitoring cameras gimbaled and swung around to provide security coverage of the roads and open space linking the two buildings and the path the orbiters would take. Security teams pulled up at each entryway into the space and set up roadblocks and a perimeter. Workers at KSC gathered at the roped of perimeter clutching their cell phone and compact cameras. A nervous and sad excitement filled the air. The light mist and low cloud ceiling further gave a tinge of melancholy to the scene. It was the kind of day that was fitting for a funeral.

The final monitoring cameras swung to cover their targets. On top of the VAB, the radios chattered. There was a problem. A still camera belonging to the press that was mounted to the roof railing was interfering with the line of sight of the security camera that covered the path from the VAB to the OPF. The mission was no-go until the monitoring camera had a clear line of sight of the procession. The press camera was relocated and the shuttle shuffle commenced as planned.

It was a simultaneous operation as both spacecraft emerged from their respective locations. Discovery was gently reversed out by a tow vehicle, as was Atlantis. Discovery was turned to face the VAB and held in place by her team of handlers while Atlantis headed to OPF-01. For the first and final time in history, Atlantis paused nose to nose with her sister ship Discovery for a silent nod and photo opportunity prior to turning into the entrance of OPF-1.

At this juncture, Discovery began to move forward on her journey to the VAB. For a brief few seconds, the two spacecraft were a few feet apart as Discovery glided by the rear of Atlantis. This was a moment in history that was not lost on the spectators who have worked on these ships or the American space program or covered it as media.

This brief moment in time was quickly over. Discovery proceeded to the VAB at a brisk walking pace guided by a team of wing walkers.

The once operational shuttle orbiter then pulled in to the dark and cavernous VAB to await her April 17th ferry flight to her final resting place at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport.

Discovery is pulled in to the dark and cavernous VAB. (Photo by Suresh A. Atapattu/ATAPATTU.NET).

Discovery is  pulled in to the dark and cavernous VAB. (Photo by Suresh A. Atapattu/ATAPATTU.NET).
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