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Mock shuttle Pathfinder lowered to ground for first time in 30 years

February 8, 2021

— Huntsville, the Pathfinder has landed.

An early mockup-turned-model of NASA's space shuttle orbiter, the Pathfinder was lowered from its towering outdoor display at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama on Monday (Feb. 8), to undergo a multi-year, multi-million-dollar restoration.

Partially dissembled in preparation for its removal, the wingless and tailless Pathfinder made the 80-foot (24-meter) descent by crane, touching the ground for the first time since it was hoisted atop its exhibit's external tank and solid rocket boosters on May 5, 1988. During the intervening 30 years, Pathfinder became a landmark, but also developed structural issues that led to the current effort.

"That is why we really needed to get it down, to look at the structure," said Patricia Ammons, senior director of communications, at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. "Do we have wear and tear on the metal? What is it that we're really dealing with?"

Awarded a $500,000 Save America's Treasures grant in 2020 and with a fundraising campaign underway, the rocket center's Pathfinder restoration project will assess the artifact's status before deciding the best way to restore and display the mock orbiter again.

"We'll be working with the Marshall Space Flight Center. They've been involved from the get go, in conversations about the structural integrity and then the engineering aspects of bringing it down safely, as well as looking at it," Ammons told collectSPACE. "Obviously, it's our responsibility. We have to fund it as NASA is not providing funding, but they will be part of the project the whole way."

Pathfinder documentary. Click to enlarge and view video in a new, pop-up window. (USSRC)

Built in 1977 out of mostly wood and steel, Pathfinder was designed to be roughly the same size, weight and shape of a space shuttle orbiter, but without the exterior details that eventually made Enterprise, Columbia and the other finished vehicles iconic. Living up to its later-given name, Pathfinder was used as a stand-in for the soon-to-come real orbiters, helping to ensure that the support facilities were ready to receive the spacecraft.

The mockup was used in ground tests at Marshall, as well as at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it was hoisted by cranes inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, at the Mate/Demate Device on the Shuttle Landing Facility apron and within the orbiter processing facilities.

After it was no longer needed and sitting in storage at Marshall for several years, Pathfinder was acquired by the America-Japan Society and modified so that it more closely resembled the space-worthy orbiters. It was then shipped to Tokyo and exhibited as part of the "Great Space Shuttle Exposition" from 1983 to 1984.

Upon its return to the U.S., Pathfinder found its permanent home at the Space & Rocket Center, home to U.S. Space Camp, where the mock orbiter was eventually mated with the first propulsion test article for the shuttle's external fuel tank and two prototype solid rocket boosters. Its outfitting also included two engine nozzles that had flown on the first launch of the space shuttle Columbia, STS-1, in 1981 — or so is largely believed.

"Well, they [the engine bells] just came down last week and so we are now in the discovery phase. I don't want to say too much yet because there's no final analysis of exactly what we have. I would just say that at this point, we're uncertain as to exactly what we have," Ammons said.

With Pathfinder now on the ground, work will also commence on assessing and restoring the external tank and solid rocket boosters, which are showing cosmetic damage associated with three decades of exposure to the elements.

"We know there's a lot of interest in getting Patfhinder back up as quickly as possible. Realistically, this is going to be a long-term project," Ammons said. "To get the external tank evaluated and determine what we need to do with it, and have the SRBs repainted is, alone, a multiple-month project. So I would say we are thinking three years at the most."


The space shuttle orbiter mockup Pathfinder "lands" on the ground to be assessed for a multi-million-dollar restoration after 30 years on display atop an external tank and two solid rocket boosters at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (USSRC)

The space shuttle "Pathfinder" as it appeared at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center prior to the work to disassemble and lower the mock orbiter to begin a multi-year restoration effort. (USSRC)

Large cranes were used to lower the partially-disassembled mock space shuttle orbiter "Pathfinder," which when hoisted into place at the Space & Rocket Center in 1988 weighed 80 tons. (USSRC)

The mockup space shuttle orbiter Pathfinder is hoisted by cranes off its external tank and solid rocket boosters at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. The orbiter's wings, tail and other exterior features were removed in advance to ease the lift. (USSRC)

Pathfinder, NASA's early space shuttle mockup-turned-model, touches the ground for the first time in 30 years at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The artifact will now be assessed for a multi-year, multi-million-dollar restoration effort. (USSRC)

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