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Thursday, 21 December 2006 23:39

Three Landing Sites Ready for Return of Space Shuttle Discovery


NASA is pondering the landing of the STS-116 crew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Specifically, officials are deciding whether to land the shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center (the primary landing site)—since weather is forecast to be unacceptable for a landing—or to land at alternative sites at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico or Edwards Air Force Base in California.


The landing site at White Sands Missile Range has been used only for the STS-3 mission when NASA astronauts Jack R. Lousma (commander) and C. Gordon Fullerton (pilot) landed Space Shuttle Columbia at the Northrup Strip on March 30, 1982. The Northrup Strip, now also called White Sands Space Harbor, is actually two landing strips that cross in the shape of an “X”. The surface itself consists of hard packed gypsum (a light colored mineral composed of hydrated calcium sulfate) that runs for about 35,000 feet (10,670 meters). The primary strip is directed basically north and south, while the secondary strip runs northeast and southwest. Both strips can be seen by shuttle crews from orbit.

The Edwards Air Force Base site consists of the Rogers Dry Lake Bed in California’s Mojave Desert. The base itself, named after test pilot Glen Edwards who was killed in 1949 while flying the Northrop YB-49 jet-powered bomber airplane, is located in Kern, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino counties within Antelope Valley, which is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of Los Angeles. Connected to Edwards’ runways is Rogers Dry Lake Bed, a closed basin with a flat stretch of desert ground covered with salt and other whitish minerals (what is called a salt pan). The primary Edwards concrete runway is 15,000 feet (4,570 meters) in length and the overrun runway on Rogers Dry Lake Bed is 9,000 feet (2,740 meters) in length. In total, there are seven runways crisscrossing the lake bed, with the longest one being about 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) in length. Edwards was first used to land a shuttle flight on April 12, 1981, when Space Shuttle Columbia returned from its STS-1 mission. A shuttle most recently landed at Edwards on August 9, 2005—Space Shuttle Discovery with STS-114 crew.

The John F. Kennedy Space Center uses the NASA Shuttle Landing Facility for the primary landing site of the Space Shuttle fleet. It is located six miles east of the city of Titusville, Florida, in Brevard County. The Shuttle Landing Facility encompasses about 500 acres. Although it only has one runway, it is one of the longest runways in the world: at a length of about 15,000 feet (4,570 meters). The runway, which is 300 feet (91 meters) wide, is designated “runway 15” or “runway 33” depending on the direction of the shuttle landing. The surface consists of high-friction concrete with grooved design to provide increased coefficient of friction, which specifically provides the best braking ability for the space shuttles.

NASA official are considering which of the three landing sites to use for the Discovery crew because weather at the primary Kennedy site calls for unacceptable conditions of low-visibility clouds and rain showers for both Friday and Saturday, December 22 and 23, respectively. If the shuttle lands at Edwards, the schedule for the next shuttle launch will be delayed by one week, and if the shuttle lands at White Sands, the schedule will be pushed back by over one month. With seven possible chances to land on Friday and Saturday, NASA officials state that the shuttle must be down by Saturday, when the shuttle runs out of fuel to supply its electrical systems.

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