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Background and Status

On July 26, 1972, NASA selected Rockwell's Space Transportation Systems Division in Downey, Calif., as the industrial contractor for the design, development, test and evaluation of the orbiter. The contract called for fabrication and testing of two orbiters, a full-scale structural test article, and a main propulsion test article. The award followed years of NASA and Air Force studies to define and assess the feasibility of a reusable space transportation system.

NASA previously (March 31, 1972) had selected Rockwell's Rocketdyne Division to design and develop the Space Shuttle main engines. Contracts followed to Martin Marietta for the external tank (Aug. 16, 1973) and Morton Thiokol's Wasatch Division for the solid rocket boosters (June 27, 1974).

In addition to the orbiter DDT&E; contract, Rockwell's Space Transportation Systems Division was given contractual responsibility as system integrater for the overall Shuttle system.

Rockwell's Launch Operations, part of the Space Transportation Systems Division, was under contract to NASA's Kennedy Space Center for turnaround, processing, prelaunch testing, and launch and recovery operations from STS-1 through the STS-11 mission.

On Oct. 1, 1983, the Lockheed Space Operations Co. was awarded the Space Shuttle processing contract at KSC for turnaround processing, prelaunch testing, and launch and recovery operations.

The first orbiter spacecraft, Enterprise (OV-101), was rolled out on Sept. 17, 1976. On Jan. 31, 1977, it was transported 38 miles overland from Rockwell's assembly facility at Palmdale, Calif., to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base for the Approach and Landing Test (ALT) program.

The 9-month-long ALT program was conducted from February through November 1977 at Dryden and demonstrated the orbiter could fly in the atmosphere and land like an airplane except without power, a gliding flight.

The ALT program involved ground tests and flight tests.

The ground tests included taxi tests of the 747 shuttle carrier aircraft (SCA) with the Enterprise mated atop the SCA to determine structural loads and responses and assess the mated capability in ground handling and control characteristics up to flight takeoff speed. The taxi tests also validated 747 steering and braking with the orbiter attached. A ground test of orbiter systems followed the unmanned captive tests. All orbiter systems were activated as they would be in atmospheric flight. This was the final preparation for the manned captive-flight phase.

Five captive flights of the Enterprise mounted atop the SCA with the Enterprise unmanned and Enterprise systems inert were conducted to assess the structural integrity and performance-handling qualities of the mated craft.

Three manned captive flights that followed the five unmanned captive flights included an astronaut crew aboard the orbiter operating its flight control systems while the orbiter remained perched atop the SCA. These flights were designed to exercise and evaluate all systems in the flight environment in preparation for the orbiter release (free) flights. They included flutter tests of the mated craft at low and high speed, a separation trajectory test and a dress rehearsal for the first orbiter free flight.

In the five free flights the astronaut crew separated the spacecraft from the SCA and maneuvered to a landing at Edwards Air Force Base. In the first four such flights the landings were on a dry lake bed; in the fifth, the landing was on Edwards' main concrete runway under conditions simulating a return from space. The last two free flights were made without the tail cone, which is the spacecraft's configuration during an actual landing from Earth orbit. These flights verified the orbiter's pilot-guided approach and landing capability; demonstrated the orbiter's subsonic terminal area energy management autoland approach capability; and verified the orbiter's subsonic airworthiness, integrated system operations and selected subsystems in preparation for the first manned orbital flight. The flights demonstrated the orbiter's ability to approach and land safely with a minimum gross weight and using several center-of-gravity configurations.

For all of the captive flights and the first three free flights, the orbiter was outfitted with a tail cone covering its aft section to reduce aerodynamic drag and turbulence. The final two free flights were without the tail cone, and the three simulated Space Shuttle main engines and two orbital maneuvering system engines were exposed aerodynamically.

The final phase of the ALT program prepared the spacecraft for four ferry flights. Fluid systems were drained and purged, the tail cone was reinstalled and elevon locks were installed.

The forward attachment strut was replaced to lower the orbiter's cant from 6 to 3 degrees. This reduces drag to the mated vehicles during the ferry flights.

After the ferry flight tests, OV-101 was returned to the NASA hangar at Dryden and modified for vertical ground vibration tests at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

On March 13, 1978, the Enterprise was ferried atop the SCA to MSFC. At Marshall, Enterprise was mated with the external tank and SRB and subjected to a series of vertical ground vibration tests. These tested the mated configuration's critical structural dynamic response modes, which were assessed against analytical math models used to design the various element interfaces.

These were completed in March 1979. On April 10, 1979 the Enterprise was ferried to Kennedy Space Center. mated with the external tank and SRB and transported via the mobile launcher platform to Launch Complex 39-A. At Launch Complex 39-A, the Enterprise served as a practice and launch complex fit-check verification tool representing the flight vehicles.

It was ferried back to Dryden at Edwards AFB in California on Aug. 16, 1979, and then returned overland to Rockwell's Palmdale final assembly facility on Oct. 30, 1979. Certain components were refurbished for use on flight vehicles being assembled at Palmdale. The Enterprise was then returned overland to Dryden on Sept. 6, 1981.

During exhibition at the Paris, May and June 1983, Enterprise was ferried to France for the Air Show as well as to Germany, Italy, England and Canada before returning to Dryden.

From April to October 1984, Enterprise was ferried to Vandenberg AFB and to Mobile, Ala., where it was taken by barge to New Orleans, La., for the United States 1984 World's Fair.

In November 1984 it was transported to Vandenberg and used as a practice and fit-check verification tool. On May 24, 1985, Enterprise was ferried from Vandenberg to Dryden.

On Sept. 20, 1985, Enterprise was ferried from Dryden Flight Research Facility to KSC. On Nov. 18, 1985, Enterprise was ferried from KSC to Dulles Airport, Washington, D.C., and became the property of the Smithsonian Institution. The Enterprise was built as a test vehicle and is not equipped for space flight.

The second orbiter, Columbia (OV-102), was the first to fly into space. it was transported overland on March 8, 1979, from Palmdale to Dryden for mating atop the SCA and ferried to KSC. It arrived on March 25, 1979, to begin preparations for the first flight into space.

The structural test article, after 11 months of extensive testing at Lockheed's facility in Palmdale, was returned to Rockwell's Palmdale facility for modification to become the second orbiter available for operational missions. it was redesignated OV-099, the Challenger.

The main propulsion test article (MPTS-098) consisted of an orbiter aft fuselage, a truss arrangement that simulated the orbiter's mid-fuselage and the Shuttle main propulsion system (three Space Shuttle main engines and the external tank). This test structure is at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. A series of static firings was conducted from 1978 through 1981 in support of the first flight into space.

On Jan. 29, 1979, NASA contracted with Rockwell to manufacture two additional orbiters, OV-103 and OV-104 (Discovery and Atlantis), convert the structural test article to space flight configuration (Challenger) and modify Columbia from its development configuration to that required for operational flights.

NASA named the first four orbiter spacecraft after famous exploration sailing ships. In the order they became operational, they are:

Columbia (OV-102), after a sailing frigate launched in 1836, one of the first Navy ships to circumnavigate the globe. Columbia also was the name of the Apollo 11 command module that carried Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin on the first lunar landing mission, July 20, 1969. Columbia was delivered to Rockwell's Palmdale assembly facility for modifications on Jan. 30, 1984, and was returned to KSC on July 14, 1985, for return to flight.

Challenger (OV-099), also a Navy ship, which from 1872 to 1876 made a prolonged exploration of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It also was used in the Apollo program for the Apollo 17 lunar module. Challenger was delivered to DSC on July 5, 1982.

Discovery (OV-103), after two ships, the vessel in which Henry Hudson in 1610-11 attempted to search for a northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and instead discovered Hudson Bay and the ship in which Capt. Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands and explored southern Alaska and western Canada. Discovery was delivered to KSC on Nov. 9, 1983.

Atlantis (OV-104), after a two-masted ketch operated for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute from 1930 to 1966, which traveled more than half a million miles in ocean research. Atlantis was delivered to KSC on April 3, 1985.

In April 1983, under contract to NASA, Rockwell's Space Transportation Systems Division, Downey, Calif., began the construction of structural spares for completion in 1987. The structural spares program consisted of an aft fuselage, crew compartment, forward reaction control system, lower and upper forward fuselage, mid-fuselage, wings (elevons), payload bay doors, vertical stabilizer (rudder/speed brake), body flap and one set of orbital maneuvering system/reaction control system pods.

On Sept. 12, 1985, Rockwell International's Shuttle Operations Co., Houston, Texas, was awarded the Space Transportation System operation contract at NASA's Johnson Space Center, consolidating work previously performed under 22 contracts by 16 different contractors.

On July 31, 1987, NASA awarded Rockwell's Space Transportation Systems Division, Downey, Calif., a contract to build a replacement Space Shuttle orbiter using the structural spares. The replacement orbiter will be assembled at Rockwell's Palmdale, Calif., assembly facility and is scheduled for completion in 1991. This orbiter is designated OV-105.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002
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