Dropping Science: Last Flight Of Space Shuttle Discovery

On Tuesday of this week The Space Shuttle Discovery took its final flight, piggybacking on top of a specially modified Boeing 747, en route to its final resting place at The National Air & Space Museum near Washington DC.

Since 1969, NASA has maintained two specially modified 747s (known as NASA 911 and 905 respectively) for the specific purpose of transporting the shuttles within Earth’s atmosphere. The planes were originally built as commercial airliners, but have since had almost all of their internal fittings stripped out and been modified for their very specific new job. Over the years the two workhorses have ferried spacecraft all over the globe but the end of the shuttle program means the end for these two workhorses as well. NASA 911 flew it’s final mission earlier this year, but NASA 905 still has a few very important final errands to run as it ferries the retired shuttles to their new homes around the US.

NASA was kind enough to publish several pictures of Discovery and NASA 905 getting ready for their final flight together, so I thought I’d share a few of them here.

Discovery is prepped for its final flight.

Discovery approaches the rig that will lift it onto the back of the Boeing 747.

In position.

NASA 905 and Discovery together.

Crews work long into the night to lift Discovery safely into the air.

The interior of NASA 905. All non-essential fittings have been stripped out to reduce the weight of the craft but even with this, 905 still requires twice as much fuel as a normal 747 just to stay airborne.

Manoeuvring NASA 905 into position.

Preparing to "mate" the two craft.

Both craft in position.

Notice the pointed cap that has been fitted over the shuttle's rear end. This is to reduce drag while in flight and prevent damage to the engines.

After hours of painstaking work, the 747 and shuttle are finally joined.

Godspeed, Discovery. Enjoy your retirement!

I was lucky enough to catch the take off of NASA 905 and Discovery on the NASA live feed earlier this week. It was genuinely breathtaking.

If you’d like more images of the operation, you can get them from the NASA website.


Dropping Science: A Tribute to The Shuttle Program


There was only ever one video that I was going to post up for this week’s DS.  Next Wednesday the Space Shuttle Atlantis will return from its 12 day mission and in so doing, mark the end of the shuttle program. The craft that has become such a global icon of innovation and progress will slip graciously into the history books, never to fly again.

As somebody who has lived his whole life in the shadow of the shuttle’s latter days – be they both triumphant and tragic, seeing the whole thing come to an end instils mixed emotions. Sadness at seeing something that has been so prevalent in my upbringing going away, but excitement over what comes next.

Whatever your feelings on the shuttle it is undeniable that it has played a huge role in the evolution of space travel. We should never forget the politicians that  fought for it, the engineers that built it and most importantly the men and women who risked (and in some cases gave) their lives in the pursuit of the final frontier.

Godspeed Atlantis.


( The rather excellent video is by  please do check out the rest of their fine work)

Dropping Science: Space Ship 2 Feathers to Earth Safely

Many of you will already be aware of Virgin Galactic and their quest to bring commercial space flight into the realms of reality. Well that quest too a big step forwards this month as their prototype craft – imaginatively named “Space Ship 2” performed its first successful “feathered” re-entry to earth.

The basic principle of feathering is this: When a space craft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere it picks up a whole craptonne of speed and resulting friction from the air around the craft causes it to heat up. This is why objects burn up when they enter the atmosphere, it’s not that the atmosphere itself is hot, they’re simply burning up under their own velocity. Conventional space craft such as the Space Shuttle get around this issue by employing thick layers of heat resistant plating which is designed to protect the ship until it reaches a safer speed. This is not only a rather expensive and inefficient solution but, as we’ve seen from the Columbia disaster of 2003, an extremely risky one. In the case of Columbia a piece of foam broke of during launch and knocked a hole in the heat shield of one of the wings, even though the damage was tiny it was enough to compromise the shield to the point that the shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry.

With Space Ship 2, Virgin Galactic have decided to do away with heat shielding entirely. Instead the entire space craft “feathers” upon re-entry, literally bending in the middle. This has the effect of rapidly and safely decelerating the craft before friction has a chance to build up. No friction, no heat, safe landing. It’s an incredibly elegant solution to a problem that has persisted ever since the start of the space race and as of this month we know that it works!

Mankind is one step closer to the stars and if that’s not exciting then I don’t know what is.