OV-102 and me

by Sep 19, 2016

In April of 1995, while working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center as a Flight Dynamics Officer, the Space Shuttle Columbia made an overnight stop at Ellington AFB, just down the road from JSC.

Columbia had undergone a planned nearly year-long Orbiter Maintenance Down Period (OMDP) refurbishment period at the Rockwell facility in Palmdale, California and was headed back to KSC for her next planned mission. A good friend of mine, Rusty, was the Lead LSO for Columbia’s ferry flight back to KSC.

The Landing Support Office (LSO), a FDO support position that coordinated world-wide landing site status and other international site communications, also provided a key member of the team that ferried Orbiters from one location to another (often from landings at EDW back to KSC).

When the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA – the modified Boeing 747 used to transport the Orbiter, piggy-back) landed at Ellington, Rusty called me at my office in Building 30 and said “Hey – come on out tomorrow before the rest of the NASA crowd gets here for open viewing, and I’ll get you a VIP tour!”

Well. How could I pass *THAT* up? 🙂

Visiting Columbia

Arriving at Ellington, it was a brilliant and thankfully clear April afternoon in Southeast Houston. Which meant, it was lucky that we didn’t have cloud cover, rain, or nasty odors coming from Pasadena, Texas City, or the Houston Ship Channel!  Hah!

Columbia sat proudly atop the SCA with several dozen people milling about, looking up and pointing at the black-and-white bird.

As I walked through the gate and showed my badge, Rusty broke away from several people he was talking with and met me. He laughed at my slightly slack-jawed look, as this was the first time that I’d been this close to an actual Orbiter. All of my experience to-date had been from the confines of Mission Control, so being this close to a real flown spacecraft brought out the 12-year-old in me. 🙂

Of course, in full tourist mode, I had my camera with me (at the time, my first “real” camera – a commercial starter SLR, the Canon T50). He told me to go on up the stairs and “strike a pose”.

I certainly wasn’t about to pass that up, so bounding up the stairs to the top, I spin around and give my cheesiest grin. Fortunately in the photo to the left, I don’t look *too* ridiculous. (hush)

As he met me at the top of the stairs and gave me back my camera, I took a quick shot of Columbia’s nose. It was an excellent reminder for me of the reality of spaceflight and the toll that entry took on the heat tiles covering this reusable spacecraft.

Up close and personal!

This is where it got fun. 🙂

Stepping into the interior, the very small forward section wasn’t unlike other commercial passenger jets I’d been in before or since. There were nice First Class seats, overhead bins, carpeting (grin), etc. Instead of a small wall and dividing curtain separating First Class from the “peasants”, there was nothing – just a large open space reaching all the way back to the aft exit (more on that later).

Also instead of a lovely Flight Attendant (still referred to as “Stewardesses” in the Politically Incorrect mid-90s, heh), a very serious Marine stood at attention at the base of the spiral staircase that led to the 747 upper deck (and cockpit).

My LSO buddy flashed his credentials, said “He’s with me”, and proceeded up the spiral staircase. With a glance at the Marine (who gave me a quick stare of evaluation), I followed and into the cockpit!

Now, my experience in cockpits to date had been in (1) simulators, (2) very small single-engine prop planes during my private pilot lessons, and (3) occasionally peeking in as I walked back to my seat on a commercial flight. NOTHING had prepared me for the complexity of a 747 cockpit nor for the sudden realization of how *high* we were above the tarmac!

My uncle flew numerous planes in his military and civilian contractor career, but even he said that landing a 747 required a “special set of skills” because of how high the cockpit was above the landing gear!

Now, if that had been the only thing on this phase of the tour, I would’ve been satisfied, but Rusty told me to turn around. The overhead access panels had been opened for both ventilation and for the amazing view that I was about to have.

Standing on a jumpseat, I stuck my head out and was face-to-nose with Columbia!

To this day, I kick myself for not breaking out of my space fanboy stupor and actually taking some photos of that vantage point. Sadly… I probably just stood there, grinning vapidly and drooling.

Standing on a jumpseat, I stuck my head out and was face-to-nose with Columbia!

To this day, I kick myself for not breaking out of my space fanboy stupor and actually taking some photos of that vantage point. Sadly… I probably just stood there, grinning vapidly and drooling.

After a few minutes, I’m sure I came to, and we went back into the SCA interior. It was interesting to see how it had been “gutted” of all of the seats and overhead storage and structurally reinforced to support the couple-hundred-thousand-pounds of Orbiter on its back. NASA has a great reference page here: The World’s Greatest Piggyback Ride

It appealed to the geeky engineer in me to walk through, looking up at the structural improvements and wondering about the mathematics involved to compute the stress and strain on the airframe, both static and dynamic!

I got over that pretty quickly as we moved towards the rear exit.  Looking first forward at Columbia and the SCA and seeing each of the attach points, it reinforced that the SCA was almost as much of an engineering marvel as the Shuttle was!

Ending up staring at the wing and tail section, I could imagine the airflow and plasma during re-entry – visually clear on the marks on the individual black carbon tiles making up the Shuttle thermal protection system.

Place Orbiter Here.


Remember those three attach points I’ve mentioned earlier?

They mimic the existing three attach points the Orbiter used to mount onto the External Tank.  One forward and two aft, forming a natural triangle of support.  

On the rear attach point directly above the exit, there was some stenciled words in black against the white attach mount.

Taking out the camera and snapping a few pictures (including zooming in as best I could), it was clear what the stenciled letters said:



Important safety tip, kids!


Of course, Columbia and her crew were lost during re-entry on STS-107 in February of 2003.

It wasn’t until 2012 that I’d get to be up-close-and-personal with an Orbiter again (Discovery at the NASM in Washington DC).

So many memories…

Thanks for reading. Drop me a line if you have any questions!


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