NASA is no longer flying space shuttles, but when the cameras turn away from the breathtaking 747 carrier flyovers or flotillas the real heavy lifting begins. Massive cranes have to delicately lift the shuttle from place to place.
Here's how they do it, complete with photos exclusive to Jalopnik online of Space Shuttles Enterprise and Discovery being hoisted on and off their mounts with the highly specialized lifting equipment.
Space shuttles aren't light — they weigh 151,000 pounds empty. Back when they were launching into space with full complements of astronauts and scientific equipment payloads, they tipped the scales at up to 240,000 pounds. Combined with the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters it needs to launch a complete shuttle weighs a massive 2,030 tons.
Thankfully Terex Cranes, the company who provided the equipment and know-how for this move, didn't have to move that full amount.
When I visited the Kennedy Space Center in 1989, I distinctly remember the tour guide telling us that it took an entire day for the fully assembled shuttle to be carried — upright on the huge Crawler-transporter — the 3.5 miles from the hangar to the launch pad. NASA did that 135 times with America's five shuttles — Columbia, Challenger, Atlantis, Discovery, Endeavor — between 1981 and 2011, when the space shuttle program finally ended.
According to our source, Terex Cranes had to follow in NASA's footsteps, working slowly and carefully to get the Enterprise and Discovery on and off of their Boeing piggyback mounts. The huge cranes had to be delivered in pieces aboard tractor trailers, so it took a few days just to prepare their rigging for each big hoist. The yellow bar and locking mechanisms that actually grabbed the shuttles' fuselages were custom made. Where the holders were placed and how the cranes moved was an exercise in extreme precision and gargantuan custom moving equipment. After all, they were working for NASA. Here's how our source described it:
The lift has to be very smooth and precise because any shift in load or radius can have a high impact. For cranes, the two most important variables are weight and radius — this defines the capacity of the crane needed. Also for tandem lifts like this one, the weight being lifted by each crane has to be monitored carefully, particularly if you [also] have a much smaller capacity crane (in this case the orange assist crane). Cranes [use] a load moment indicator — [which] measures the load radius and how [heavy] the load is — then it compares the values with the load charts for the machine and allows operators to work safely.
Ever so carefully, the cranes lowered each shuttle onto special mounts (pictured in the gallery) on the backs of the Boeing jumbo jets. The same thing had to be done after the shuttles (and their carriers) circled the nation's capital and New York City. Well, the reverse, but with every bit of care and attention to detail that went into loading the expensive aircraft.
(Hat tip to Augustin!)
Photo credit: Terex Cranes