What role did Boeing 747 played in the development of Space Shuttle program? Let’s find out.
Boeing’s 747, the original and most aesthetic “Jumbo Jet”, revolutionized air travel, but its five-decade reign was ended by more efficient twin-jet planes. The last commercial Boeing jumbo was delivered recently to Atlas Air on Tuesday, 53 years after its debut as a Pan Am passenger jet. Though mostly known as a passenger jet, it also played an important role in space discovery. Let’s understand how.
The Boeing 747 is a large, long-range wide-body airliner designed and manufactured by Boeing Commercial Airplanes in the United States between 1968 and 2023. In 1965, Joe Sutter left the 737 development program to design the 747, the first twin-aisle airliner. In April 1966, Pan Am ordered 25 Boeing 747-100 aircraft, and Pratt & Whitney agreed to develop the JT9D engine. On September 30, 1968, the first 747 was rolled out of the custom-built Everett Plant, the world’s largest building by volume. The first flight took place on February 9, 1969, and the 747 was certified in December of that year. It entered service with Pan Am on January 22, 1970, and was the first airplane called a “Jumbo Jet”.
Boeing 747 and Space Shuttle
NASA used two modified Boeing 747 jetliners, originally manufactured for commercial use, as Space Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA). One is a 747-100 model, while the other is designated a 747-100SR (short range). NASA chose the 747 as the aircraft to ferry the orbiters between the launch and landing sites, and to other manufacturing and program facilities when overland transportation was unsuitable or unfeasible.
The two aircraft are identical in appearance and in their performance as Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. The SCAs are used to ferry space shuttle orbiters from landing sites back to the launch complex at the Kennedy Space Center, and also to and from other locations too distant for the orbiters to be delivered by ground transportation. The orbiters are placed atop the SCAs by Mate-Demate Devices, large gantry-like structures which hoist the orbiters off the ground for post-flight servicing, and then mate them with the SCAs for ferry flights.
Note about Mate-Demate Devices: A Mate-Demate Device (MDD) is a specialized crane designed to lift a Space Shuttle orbiter onto and off the back of a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.
NASA 905, the first SCA, was obtained by NASA from American Airlines in 1974. Shortly after acceptance by NASA in 1974, NASA 905 was flown in a series of wake vortex research flights at NASA Dryden in a study to seek ways of reducing turbulence produced by large aircraft. Pilots flying as much as several miles behind large aircraft have encountered wake turbulence that has caused control problems. The NASA study helped the Federal Aviation Administration modify flight procedures for commercial aircraft during airport approaches and departures.
Data from Boeing 747-100 specifications
(Source: Boeing 747-100 Technical Specifications)
Crew: 4: pilot, co-pilot, 2 flight engineers (1 flight engineer when not carrying Shuttle)
Length: 231 ft 4 in (70.51 m)
Wingspan: 195 ft 8 in (59.64 m)
Height: 63 ft 5 in (19.33 m)
Wing area: 5,500 sq ft (510 m2)
Empty weight: 318,000 lb (144,242 kg)
Max takeoff weight: 710,000 lb (322,051 kg)
Powerplant: 4 × Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7J turbofan engines, 50,000 lbf (220 kN) thrust each
Cruise speed: 250 kn (290 mph, 460 km/h) / M0.6 with Shuttle Orbiter loaded
Range: 1,150 nmi (1,320 mi, 2,130 km) with Shuttle Orbiter loaded
Service ceiling: 15,000 ft (4,600 m) with Shuttle Orbiter loaded