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I saw a sign at the Smithsonian about the Space Shuttle where it said that their gear was not extended until 50 feet above the ground. I've searched and searched for something definitive that had the actual procedures used, but can't find anything.

To put this in perspective, the policy for every jet that I have flown has been to have the gear down and locked between 1,500 ft. and 500 ft. (at the very lowest). 50 feet seems very very low! What happens if it doesn't come down on the first try and they need time to troubleshoot?

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If you're looking for a definitive source, how about the Shuttle Crew Operations Manual. It's essentially the POH for the Space Shuttle. Secton 2.14-2 says:

The landing gear is deployed at 300 ± 100 feet and at a maximum of 312 knots equivalent airspeed (KEAS).

Although, the targeted deploy speed was 288 KEAS according to the Normal Procedures section 5.4-7, which matches up with approximately what you see in HUD videos.

The manual says the gear may take up to 10 seconds to fully deploy, but based on HUD videos (measuring the time it takes for //GR// to change to GR-DN), this process pretty consistently took about 6 seconds and was completed by about 70-130 feet AGL depending on the deployment altitude.

The reason they deployed so late is because the shuttle was a very non-aerodynamic "airplane" to begin with, and lowering the gear would reduce its lift-to-drag ratio even further. However, there were non-standard procedures in place (see section 7.4-25) where, if the speed brake (a split rudder – not a wing surface) was stuck closed, they would have lowered the gear earlier in order to act as a speed brake. Note that the hydraulic system was incapable of raising the gear in-flight, so once down, it stays down.

Because the shuttle was a "glider" (a generous use of that term) at landing, with no chance of going around, the gear absolutely must work on the first try. A shuttle belly landing would have ended very bad due to its high speed and high angle of attack. In order to assure the gear would extend, there were several redundant systems in place:

  1. The doors had a bungee-assist system which exerted 2000 pounds of force (~9 kN) on the nose wheel doors, and 5000 pounds (~22 kN) on each of the main wheel doors.
  2. The nose wheel had a pyro-assist system which fired every time the gear was deployed, and helped assure it would lock into place.
  3. The gear is normally deployed through a combination of "springs, hydraulic actuators, aerodynamic forces, and gravity."
  4. However, if all else fails, and the gear does not begin to move within 1 second of issuing the command, a pyrotechnic initiator cuts the locks and forces the gear down.

So they were pretty confident it was going to work.

Interestingly, the original procedure for deciding when to deploy the gear was based on airspeed, not altitude. However, this resulted in an inconsistent safety margin. This quote from the Flight Procedures Handbook: Approach, Landing and Rollout explains it better (sorry, I don't have a link to a doc, I probably downloaded it from a nasaspaceflight.com forum a few years ago with a paid membership):

The landing gear deploy cue for STS-1 through STS-4 occurred when the velocity decelerated through 270 KEAS. This corresponded to an altitude of 200 ft on the nominal energy trajectory. Flight STS-1 followed the velocity cue procedure which, due to its much higher than expected energy, did not occur until an altitude of 85 ft. Had the gear been deployed at 200 ft, some of that excess energy would have been dissipated. Flight STS-2 was very low on energy, reaching a maximum velocity of only 274 KEAS at 1100 ft altitude. The 270 KEAS cue occurred at 600 ft, but the actual deploy occurred at 400 ft, adding to the already existing low energy condition. Lower energy occurred since the nominal altitude for gear deploy would have occurred at 200 ft on a nominal trajectory. Flight STS-3 was high on energy, not decelerating through 270 KEAS until an altitude of 87 ft. T/D occurred earlier than expected on STS-3 and the gear was actually down and locked only a couple of seconds before first wheel contact. It was after STS-3 that altitude was selected as the gear deploy cue because it would compensate for off-nominal energy conditions, not make them worse, and still satisfy safety concerns. Downrange was also considered as a gear deploy cue, and it too, had advantages over velocity.

As far as the sign you are referring to, I see three possibilities:

  1. They were referring to the very early missions which sometimes saw very late gear deployment,
  2. They were rounding down for dramatic effect, or
  3. They simply made it up on the spot as if it were a statistic.
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe they should have said that it was not fully extended until 50 ft. That would have been closer anyway. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Dec 21 '15 at 23:08
  • $\begingroup$ I always thought there was something definitely off about the nose gear on the shuttle.. like it was too short maybe. The thing seemed to be terribly unstable as it went horizontal and the nose gear hits VERY hard on some landings. $\endgroup$ – Trevor_G Jun 8 '17 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Trevor the nose gear probably hits a bit harder than most airplanes, but it's really not that hard. STS-3 definitely hit hard. The nose gear strut was shorter to save space and weight. However, I wouldn't call it unstable. There was really no reason why it needed to be perfectly horizontal. It's not like it's a passenger plane where the tilt would make it awkward to load/unload. $\endgroup$ – Bret Copeland Jun 8 '17 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ @BretCopeland ya I meant as the wing goes under horizontal in landing the nose gear is still a few feet off the ground. Then it drops like a stone. See about 2:40min on the video here youtube.com/watch?v=dDvyznX1ipY. Note it over compensates first and noses up... $\endgroup$ – Trevor_G Jun 8 '17 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Trevor as I said, STS-3 hit hard, but STS-3 was a very off-nominal landing in many ways. It came dangerously close to exceeding the structural limits of the landing gear. So it's not a good example. $\endgroup$ – Bret Copeland Jun 9 '17 at 15:18
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The official source says that the landing gear is deployed at around 1700ft AGL, however I suspect an error in that statement.

According to the document though, the spaceshuttle has a 1.5 degree glideslope in the short final and around 200kt. In this video the landing gear is extended 18 seconds before the touchdown. 1.5° glideslope equals 2.6% glide path (tan 1.5). 200kt are 337.56 ft/s and 2.6% of that are 8.8 ft/s. The space shuttle is therefore descending with about 9ft/s in the very short final. 9*18 equals 162, which means that in this video the gear was extended at roughly 160ft.

However, these are rough estimates. Before the short final the space shuttle has a descent rate of 10,000ft/min, therefore it might be, that it was even higher in the video. But even though if it was 10ft/s, that would mean that for 50ft the gear is not extended five seconds before touchdown, not counting the time it actually takes to extend it into a safe position.

The link Qantas 94 Heavy posted in the comment says "300 ± 100 feet", so it would be somewhat close to that. My guess is, that the spaceshuttle is still faster than 200 kt at this point and therefore has a higher sinkrate.

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    $\begingroup$ The gear were lowered manually and could not be retracted, so they were lowered shortly before touchdown. In this video the Columbia gear was lowered just about 8 seconds before touchdown (at Edwards AFB). youtube.com/watch?v=dDvyznX1ipY $\endgroup$ – xpda Jan 17 '14 at 6:51
  • $\begingroup$ Oh wow, that is impressive. And that is easily 50ft. $\endgroup$ – Force Jan 17 '14 at 13:46
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe they meant that the gear is not fully extended until 50'.... $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Jan 17 '14 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ That video really shows the nose gear instability problem. $\endgroup$ – Trevor_G Jun 8 '17 at 20:25

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