Endeavour Rolls Out

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How many times should one try to start a blog post before giving up on erudition and just writing something that poses a grave danger of sounding like a fifth-grade book report? The number is at least three, but it’s greater than the number of tries that I ultimately made before writing this.

I normally head down to Jekyll Island, Georgia each march to visit my folks, who spend two months there each winter. About every other year, I detour to Kennedy Space Center to feed my space monster. I need to touch home there on the Cape to recharge the batteries.

I was thinking about that awhile ago and called up Mike Robinson of the Starfighters to see if he might want to drink such beer as I might buy upon passing through. Mike, ever the considerate guy that he is, suggested sliding my schedule to the left by a week to include the TICO airshow here at the Space Coast Airport. And, being that the Starfighters have a NASA connection, he allowed as how I might be able to see some of their operations there at KSC.

Say no more. I moved the dates and came down this weekend instead of last weekend.

And then, by happy chance, it happened that the roll-out of STS orbiter Endeavour for STS-134 was slated to occur this evening. Long story short, I spend a bit of this evening at the VAB watching Endeavour roll out to Pad 39A.

The launch assembly crawls out of the VAB and then hits the gas and begins to move at a more blistering mile-per-hour pace. Once it’s well and truly out of the VAB, the spotlights illuminate it and it stands out in dazzling white.

The parking lot is full of people. Most, like me, are shooting pictures, babbling like kids, or drooling. It’s going on 9:00 at night, so just about everyone on this side of the fence is here because he or she wants to be here. Everybody’s a fanboy and it shows.

STS-134 is a run to the ISS to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) and spare parts, including two S-band communications antennas, a high-pressure gas tank, additional spare parts for Dextre and micrometeoroid debris shields.

Also, as matters stand, it’s slated to be the second to the last STS mission. Which makes it bittersweet to see it roll out. Discovery just landed from its final flight yesterday. So everyone is aware of the era ending.

I suppose that I shouldn’t be bothered as much as I am. I’ve always been the first guy to complain that the STS has given us a space pacifier that has kept the public’s mind off the fact that our manned space program hasn’t left low earth orbit since 1972.

But the STS has been the county’s flagship space program for most of the time during which I was growing up so, like it or not, the STS has a place in my heart. It’s weird to see an orbiter recede into the night like that.

There are much more profound things to say about this evening. Probably in some larger context and in more concise form. For the time being, I think it’s probably enough to acklowledge how grateful I am to the Starfighters for the access to the rollout and the chance to see the great lady up close. And to walk among a crowd of people that is just as excited as I am about being there.

Big day tomorrow here on the Space Coast. More soon!

NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (Part 2) – Interview with SCA Pilot and Former Astronaut Gordon Fullerton

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Welcome to the second episode in our two-part series covering the modified Boeing 747s that NASA uses carry the space shuttle orbiters when they need to be repositioned between Edwards Air Force Base in California, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and other locations.

We talked about the basics of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, or “SCAs” in Part One, in which we also interviewed SCA crew chief Pete Seidl. If you missed that episode or if you’re a recent subscriber, please be sure to download that episode as well.

Today we’re going to talk to one of the pilots who flies NASA’s SCAs.

To say that Gordon Fullerton is an SCA pilot would be true, but to stop there would be to fail to outline as rich an aviation and aerospace career as anyone could claim.

He’s presently associate director of flight operations at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Southern California. In addition to flying the SCAs, his assignments include a variety of flight research and support activities piloting a variety of multi-engine and high performance aircraft.

Fullerton entered the U.S. Air Force in 1958. After primary and basic flight school, he trained as an F-86 interceptor pilot and later became a B-47 bomber pilot. In 1964, he attended what is now be called Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base and was later assigned as a test pilot with the Bomber Operations Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

While still in the Air Force, he went on to become a NASA astronaut and served on the support crews for the Apollo 14, 15, 16 and 17 lunar missions.


The voice there saying “Roger, you have good thrust” is Fullerton, who was the man at the CAPCOM station in Houston for Gene Cernan and Jack Schmidt’s liftoff from the Taurus Littrow Valley as part of Apollo 17 – the last manned mission to the moon.

In 1977, Fullerton joined one of the two two-man flight crews that piloted the Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise during the Approach and Landing Test program, which involved flying the orbiter to altitude on an SCA, separating the orbiter from the SCA, and then gliding the orbiter to a landing to validate landing procedures.

Fullerton logged 382 hours in space during two space shuttle missions. He was the pilot for the eight-day STS-3 orbital flight test mission in 1982. STS-3 landed at Northrup Strip at White Sands, New Mexico because Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base was wet due to heavy seasonal rains. He was also the commander of the STS-51F Spacelab 2 mission in 1985, which landed at Edwards.

Fullerton has logged more than 16,000 hours of flying time and flown 114 different types of aircraft, including full qualification in the T-33, T-34, T-37, T-38, T-39, F-86, F-101, F-106, F-111, F-14, F/A-18, X-29, KC-135, C-140 and B-47.

Since joining Dryden as a research pilot, Fullerton has piloted nearly all the research and support aircraft flown at the facility and currently flies the center’s Beech King Air 200 as well as the B-747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.

He was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2005, and the International Space Hall of Fame in 1982.

We started the research for this episode intending to focus on the SCAs themselves. We were delighted to have access to one of the pilots of these magnificent machines. But we had no idea when we submitted the initial inquiry that that we’d end up talking to a man whose career has been so intertwined with the space program and the national dream that has captured so many imaginations. With your indulgence, then, we couldn’t help also asking Gordon for his thoughts about the space program – where it’s been and where it’s going.

We caught up with Gordon by phone at his office at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Southern California.

[Interview audio.]

Image used per NASA’s policy entitled Using NASA Imagery and Linking to NASA Web Sites (October 13, 2005) located at http://www.nasa.gov/audience/formedia/features/MP_Photo_Guidelines.html. NASA does not endorse Airspeed or any commercial good or service associated with Airspeed.

See more pictures of the SCA at http://www.dfrc.nasa.gov/Gallery/Photo/STS-Ferry/index.html.