The front section of NASA's "full-fuselage trainer," bound for Seattle's Museum of Flight, is scheduled to arrive at Boeing Field in time for a welcoming ceremony June 30.
Over the past three decades, NASA officials have asked a lot of the space-shuttle mock-up they call the FFT — “full-fuselage trainer.”
In its long career at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the life-size shuttle replica helped train every crew in the U.S. space-shuttle program, which ended last year after 135 missions. But now, the massive wooden structure is being prepared for something it was never intended to do:
In less than two weeks, the front end of the FFT is scheduled to lift off from Houston’s Ellington Field, beginning a three-day journey from Texas that will end, if all goes as planned, in front of dignitaries and cheering spectators at Seattle’s Boeing Field shortly before noon Saturday, June 30.
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From there it will be moved to a permanent home at Seattle’s Museum of Flight where, once its exhibit is complete, visitors will get to step inside it for an astronaut’s-eye view.
The shuttle’s 28-foot front section — the crew compartment — will be making the flight to Seattle not under its own power but as a passenger, packed and braced inside NASA’s swollen-bodied Super Guppy cargo plane. Two more flights, scheduled for August, will carry sections of the trainer’s 61-foot-long cargo bay.
Other FFT pieces, such as its stand and tail assembly, are being transported by truck in a dozen shipments that began in April. In all, the Museum of Flight in Seattle is paying NASA $2 million to move the mock-up.
“It’s a remarkable piece of craftsmanship,” said Allison McIntyre, deputy chief of NASA’s Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility in Houston.
The FFT’s plywood panels are fixed to a framework of milled wood, sized to match the dimensions of a real shuttle’s aluminum frame. Its switches and displays are identical to those of a real shuttle, but are not powered.
Inside, astronauts got a feel for how things fit together in a real shuttle, and they practiced maneuvers such as exiting the shuttle through the top and rappelling down inside, which might be needed in an emergency.
But even as the FFT is warmly welcomed by Gov. Chris Gregoire and other officials, it will be no secret this is not what Museum of Flight backers had first hoped for.
Seattle was among the also-rans last year when NASA Administrator Charles Bolden chose sites from more than 20 museums and visitor centers across the country that sought to host one of the space’s programs actual shuttles — the newly retired Enterprise, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour.
Bolden said the museums he chose in New York, Los Angeles, Florida and the Washington, D.C., area would maximize the number of people who would see them.
Instead, Bolden gave Seattle the FFT.
Trainer’s role in history
The trainer’s history is the history of the shuttle program.
From 1981, the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, until the conclusion of the final shuttle flight last July, astronauts who trained on the FFT traveled more than half a billion miles.
Two shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were destroyed during their missions, disasters that killed their crews and jarred the national psyche. But after each, shuttle flights resumed.
Through it all, the FFT never left the Johnson Space Center — until now.
In the dark hours after midnight April 19, the crew compartment took the first steps on its journey to Seattle.
With crews lifting utility lines and traffic signals out of the way, the FFT section was carried on a flatbed trailer for three hours, moving nine miles from the space center to a building near Ellington Field, where its flight will begin.
It is scheduled to leave Ellington Field on June 27, a departure date that allows a day of downtime if bad weather is encountered.
Moving the mock-up “has been one technical challenge after another,” said McIntyre.
The sections shipped by air, she said, need to be packaged as securely as possible — to protect them and the airplane they’re riding in — but still remain light enough for the Super Guppy to carry.
Inside the Super Guppy, the FFT’s crew compartment will be wrapped in a web of blankets, chains and foam padding. It will sit in a specially made open-topped metal crate, resting on a steel carriage to distribute the weight along the length of the Super Guppy.
By itself, the stripped-down crew compartment weighs about 8 tons, but its weight nearly doubles once the packaging and support structures are added.
That’s still well below the Super Guppy’s payload capacity of 26 tons, but crews want to keep the total weight low to maximize the amount of fuel they can carry.
Museum of Flight President Doug King said reassembling the FFT is expected to take until September, and he hopes to let museum-goers see the work in progress, whenever it’s safe.
Reassembled, the FFT will look like a wingless space shuttle, its nose facing East Marginal Way South.
King admits he was disappointed Seattle didn’t get a shuttle, particularly because the museum had built a $12 million Space Gallery to house one.
Months after the decision, King said NASA analysts had made “some pretty big mistakes,” underestimating how many visitors would see a shuttle in Seattle.
And he unsuccessfully urged Bolden to let Seattle host a real shuttle while the winning cities prepared their shuttle exhibits.
Even so, King insists the FFT shouldn’t be considered a consolation prize.
He said allowing visitors up close will help promote this museum’s aim of being a pre-eminent air and space educational institution.
Museums that got the real shuttles must display them out of reach, to prevent them from wear or harm.
“Our story won’t be about the artifact,” King said. “It will be about the people who trained on it: What did they learn? Where were they going? How did that make a difference to us here on Earth? And how did it pave the way for what comes next?”
The Seattle area stands to play a key role in the story of what comes next, through the work of entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen. Case in point: the first flying vehicle produced by Bezos’ Blue Origin aerospace company arrived at the museum on long-term loan last month.
“We are in the middle of an amazing, history-making moment,” King said. “A thousand years from now, people will write that this is when humans first left the Earth.”
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org