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Houston museum to top historic NASA jet with mock space shuttle

Artist concept of the new "The Shuttle and 747 Carrier" exhibit to open at Space Center Houston in 2015. (Space Center Houston)
May 2, 2013

– They say that everything is bigger in Texas and that certainly goes for Space Center Houston's newly-announced space shuttle exhibit.

Space Center Houston, which serves as the official visitor center for NASA's Johnson Space Center, revealed plans on Thursday (May 2) to display its full-size space shuttle mockup atop the historic jumbo jetliner that ferried the real orbiters after their return from space and delivered them to their museum homes.

NASA transferred ownership of its original Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), a modified Boeing 747 jet, to Space Center Houston on Thursday, setting in motion the visitor center's plans to pair the replica shuttle it received last June with the airplane that landed in Houston five months later.

"This is an exciting day for Texans, as we accept the SCA from NASA and assume the awesome responsibility for its modifications, showcasing its legacy and adding a one-of-a-kind experience to our complex," said Richard Allen, president and CEO of Space Center Houston. "We look forward to accepting the challenge of raising funds for this amazing endeavor as we prepare for the next phase of this major expansion."

The new $12 million outdoor complex, named "The Shuttle and 747 Carrier," is to open to the public in February 2015.

A gantry-like structure will give Space Center Houston guests the chance to enter both the shuttle and 747. (Space Center Houston)

"The Shuttle and 747 Carrier will give visitors the world's first and only all-access pass to an authentic and realistic journey through the inside of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft as well as an unforgettable experience aboard the full-scale shuttle model," Space Center Houston stated in a release. "The up close and personal access to American aviation history will reveal the shuttle program's amazing ingenuity, clever innovation and awe-inspiring complexity."

An artist's rendering of the planned exhibit shows the 747 jumbo jet, known by its tail number "NASA 905," parked outside Space Center Houston where the shuttle mockup sits today. A gantry-like structure sits next to the air- and spacecraft combo that will provide visitors the opportunity to climb inside both vehicles.

The carrier aircraft is currently at Ellington Field, home to Johnson Space Center's aircraft operations, located about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from Space Center Houston. To get the aircraft to the visitor center, its wings and tail will be removed, and its fuselage will be sectioned in three.

The jumbo jet is expected to be in place at Space Center Houston by this November. The work to hoist the 130,000-pound (60,000-kilogram) shuttle mockup atop the airplane will follow during the first quarter of 2014.

Before the model orbiter leaves the ground however, it will need to undergo some repairs and modifications, including the installation of attachment hardware to mount it on the back of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Space Center Houston also plans to upgrade the interior of the mockup, including replacing its early-shuttle analog flight deck displays and controls with the "glass cockpit" digital version that was in use later in the program.

Space Center Houston's full-size space shuttle mockup went on display outside the visitor center in 2012. (Space Center Houston)

The shuttle mockup arrived in Houston by barge from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, where it debuted in 1993. Known then by the name "Explorer," it was designed and built by aerospace replica manufacturer Guard-Lee, Inc. using schematics, blueprints, and archival documents provided by NASA and the shuttle contractors.

NASA 905 was one of two Shuttle Carrier Aircraft in the space agency's fleet. Its final flight for the shuttle program was to deliver the retired orbiter Endeavour to Los Angeles for the California Science Center last year. The jumbo jet's final overall flight was in December, when it was flown for an hour-and-a-half proficiency flight from Ellington.

In service to the shuttle program for 35 years, NASA 905 flew 70 out of the 87 ferry flights during the space shuttle program's operational phase, including 46 of the 54 post-mission flights from the Dryden Flight Research Center in California to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Converted from an American Airlines passenger jet, 905 was NASA's first SCA and it flew the 1977 approach and landing tests with the prototype orbiter Enterprise.

Space Center Houston plans The Shuttle and 747 Carrier exhibit to be more than a public attraction, but also serve as the centerpiece for new educational programs to inspire students to consider careers in math and science fields.

See for continuing coverage of the delivery and display of NASA's retired space shuttles. See Space Center Houston's website for more about "The Shuttle and 747 Carrier Project."

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