“Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fueled system in the world; knowing they’re going to light the bottom–and doesn’t get a little worried–does not fully understand the situation.”
-John Young, after being asked if he was worried about making the first Space Shuttle flight (STS-1).
It may be hard to believe, but the United States has been flying Space Shuttles since 1981: for 29 years. But what does it take to get a shuttle ready for launch?
In real life, the Space Shuttles come down from a mission and get towed around the campus at Kennedy Space Center. Where do you take one first? Well, the shuttles– when not in use — normally live in a special building at the Kennedy Space Center called the Orbiter Processing Facility. (There are three: one for each shuttle.)
The shuttles are towed there immediately after landing, where they undergo a tremendous amount of maintenance. As mundane as the Orbiter Processing Facility looks from the outside, I was absolutely shocked when I found out what they look like on the inside.
It’s like having the largest airplane hangar in the world! First off comes the repair and maintenance work that goes into restoring the shuttle. Somehow, flying back into the atmosphere at around Mach 25 (around 16,000 miles-per-hour, or 25,000 kph) is hard on an aircraft.
But even after that, the shuttle needs to be specially outfitted for its particular mission: a process that takes around six weeks and hundreds of workers.
But then, you’ve got to get the shuttle ready for launch, which means getting it upright, attaching the external fuel tank and the two solid rocket boosters. How to do that? Take it over to the Vehicle Assembly Building.
Once inside the VAB, the largest single-story building in the world, the shuttle is hoisted into a vertical position.
It’s then lowered onto the external tank/solid rocket boosters,
and placed onto the Mobile Launcher Platform. (Which is, in fact, mobile.)
The Mobile Launcher Platform then heads off to the launch pad, where the Rotating Service Structure will protect it until it’s ready for launch!
Finally, the Shuttle is left alone on the launch pad, and is ready for takeoff!
But why wait so long to see the whole process? Well, you don’t have to anymore. Scott Andrews, Stan Jirman, and Philip Scott Andrews (Scott Andrews’ son) took this arduous, six-week process and created a time-lapse video out of tens of thousands of still images to condense the whole process down to under four minutes. (Original source: the Smithsonian’s website.) Have a look for yourself!
So as the shuttle winds down its nearly thirty years of service to humanity’s enterprise in outer space, take a few minutes to appreciate just how spectacular this achievement really is. (And don’t forget to take a look at how they made the video.)
And for those of you wondering, the images I’ve used are of a wide variety of shuttles, but the video shot is exclusively of the Space Shuttle Discovery on its mission earlier this year: STS-131, under the command of Alan Poindexter. Enjoy!