Some of the STS backup landing sites were in Europe.

Of course, The STS would actually have to fly there only in case of extreme emergency, so the number one priority was just to save the lives of the crew members.

However, did NASA have a plan, or would it be doable to airlift the Space Shuttle atop an the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft like on this picture?

Shuttle Carrier Aircraft transporting a Space Shuttle orbitere

I'm especially curious about the range penalty induced by the additional drag of piggybacking the orbiter.

Picture credits: NASA / Carla Thomas, Public domain.

  • $\begingroup$ Consideration was given to in-air refueling and some preliminary test flights working towards it were done, but a concern arouse around turbulence and possible fatigue of the SCA tail so they stopped because there was no actual requirement for it. The more interesting case is returning from pacific islands ;-) $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 3:19
  • $\begingroup$ Why not just fly the Shuttle across the Atlantic suborbitally. Would have been interesting so see how much smaller the center fuel section was, and they would have beaten Virgin Galactic to it by 40 years, with more paseengers! $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 22, 2019 at 16:30

3 Answers 3


Short Answer

A procedure had been established to return from a Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) site to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) using the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA). The maximum weight that could be ferried from Europe was approx. 87,000 kg, so so weight had to be removed from the orbiter prior to being mated.

The SCA had a maximum range, unmated, of 5,500 nautical miles, however when matted the range decreased to 1,000 nautical miles, using reserves. 4,500 NM were lost by carrying the orbiter. The SCA would have had to stop in UK, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada.

A test for in-flight refueling had been conducted but no solution was developed. From our friends at Space Exploration:

Studies were conducted to equip the SCA with aerial refueling equipment, a modification already made to the U.S. Air Force E-4 (modified 747-200s) and 747 tanker transports for the IIAF. However, during formation flying with a tanker aircraft to test refueling approaches, minor cracks were spotted on the tailfin of N905NA. While these were not likely to have been caused by the test flights, it was felt that there was no sense taking unnecessary risks. Since there was no urgent need to provide an aerial refueling capacity, the tests were suspended.

A tailcone covering the 3 aft engines and the thrusters was used to reduce the drag and the buffeting on the SCA vertical stabilizers. It also protected the engine nozzles from being damaged in flight.

See below if you are interested by more details of the recovery plan.

Plan Used After Landing at the TAL Site

Operations to be conducted to return the orbiter to KSC were documented in a plan that couldn't be identified with certainty, however the US Department of Defense (DOD) plan to support the turnaround is quite descriptive of the operations. From DDMS TURNAROUND FUNCPLAN 3611-03 (C=TAL day):

The turnaround operation, to include redeployment of personnel and equipment, may require up to 120 days to complete. [...]

C+18: JTF-DDMS staff coordinates with NASA for ferry flight route support.

C+22: JTF-DDMS staff presents initial ferry flight support plan to NASA management.

C+26: NASA begins 24 hour turnaround operations to prepare and mate the orbiter to the SCA for return ferry flight. [...]

C+53: Pathfinder and SCA arrive at landing site.

Slides explaining the DOD plan are also available.

TAL Site Operations

Each of the TAL site was equipped for the Orbiter landing and turnaround operations:

  • Navigation and landing aids
  • Weather equipment
  • Dedicated ground-support equipment
  • Emergency equipment
  • C-130 aircraft support

From Nasa Fact - Space Shuttle Transoceanic Abort Landing Sites:

Each TAL site is covered by a separate international agreement. The TAL sites are referred to as augmented sites because they are equipped with space shuttle-unique landing aids and are staffed with NASA, contractor and Department of Defense personnel during a launch and contingency landing.

Shuttle's Microwave Landing System
Shuttle's Microwave Landing System (source)

In addition:

Safing and deservicing of the orbiter would be initiated by the deployed TAL team and augmented by a team known as the Rapid Response Team. [...]

The TAL site ground operations manager would initially be in charge until relieved by a higher-ranking management official who would arrive on the response/investigation team aircraft.

Within 24 hours, the response/investigation teams would arrive at the TAL site aboard C-17 aircraft carrying personnel and equipment. Most of the equipment would come from Kennedy Space Center and Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

Following the advance response/investigation teams contingent, the Deployed Operations Team, consisting of additional personnel and equipment, would begin arriving at the TAL site for the orbiter turnaround operation. NASA estimates it would take about 19 C-17/C-5 aircraft sorties, a significant Navy sealift operation, and 450 NASA and contractor personnel to complete the turnaround. [...]

Payloads and/or airborne support equipment will remain onboard the orbiter for the flight back to Kennedy Space Center unless the capability of the shuttle carrier aircraft, landing site location or other requirements dictate other wise.

Lightening the Orbiter at the TAL Site Before Ferrying to KSC

Weight limits of the SCA:

  • Basic weight, NASA 905, 318,053 lbs (144,269 kg), NASA 911, 323,034 lbs (146,528 kg)
  • Maximum gross brake release weight, 710,000 lbs (322,056 kg)
  • Maximum gross landing weight, 600,000 lbs (272,160 kg).

From Space Transportation System Cargo Abort and Recovery Operations:

The ferry weight from contingency landing sites in Europe and Africa is constrained to approx. 192,000 Ibs. (approx. 87,000 kg). The ferry weight from the Pacific contingency landing sites is further constrained to 154,000 Ibs. (approx. 70,000 kg).

This requires not only removal of the payload but removal of Orbiter main engines, tires, landing gear and other components as well. In addition, the Orbiter Z axis (vertical) and X axis (longitudinal) center of gravity location must be within a limited envelope, as shown in Figure 1.

From The Conquest of Space, Ferrying the Shuttle - Part Four: The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft:

A typical route might take the pair from continental Europe to England, then on to Iceland, then Canada, and finally to the United States.

(Additional information might be found in JSC-NSTS-08934-VOLUME-4, Space Shuttle Orbiter Ferry Plan.)

Mating and Demating the Orbiter

Photo gallery of Discovery mating at Edwards and demating at KSC (STS-114).

Nasa -- STS-114: Mission Complete
(Source: Nasa -- STS-114: Mission Complete)

The mating structure above couldn't be used at a TAL site, so a crane would be available for the operation:

Columbia being prepared at White Sands. Photo by Steve Schmidt.
Columbia being prepared at White Sands. Photo by Steve Schmidt.
(Source: Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields)

Ferrying the Orbiter

From Nasa Fact, Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.

There were two SCA:

  • NASA 905: Obtained from American Airlines in 1974.
  • NASA 911: obtained from Japan Airlines in 1989.

They were B747-100 and B747-100SR, modified by Boeing into their SCA configuration.

Nasa Fact, Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
(Source: Nasa Fact, Shuttle Carrier Aircraft)

They were engined by four Pratt and Whitney JT9D-7J, and had a fuel capacity of 316,307 lbs (143,477 kg).

The SCA didn't flight very fast: 250 kt or M .6, due to the drag from the orbiter and the additional vertical stabilizers. Its typical cruise altitude was also rather low to prevent freezing of the orbiter fluids:

  • with orbiter, 13,000-15,000 ft
  • unmated, 24,000-26,000 ft.

The range was hence a bit shorter than if it flew higher. Typical range:

  • Mated, typically 1000 NM (with reserves)
  • Unmated, maximum 5500 NM.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ so they need 120 days and half of that is wasted on paper pushing. Typical government... $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 5:16
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @jwenting: "120 days and half of that is wasted on paper pushing". The 200-300 persons mobilized before and after the Turnaroud main phase didn't do paperwork. See the linked detailed plan. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 9:20
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ It's definitely worth having your ducks in a row before sticking the Space Shuttle on a 747 and flying it across the ocean. $\endgroup$
    – zymhan
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 18:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @jwenting How long do you expect "a significant Navy sealift operation" to take? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 7:05

Yes, it was possible and NASA had a plan. Enterprise was taken on a European tour in 1983, visiting the UK, France, Germany and Italy. To get there, it crossed the Atlantic on the back of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (the converted 747). According to Slate, the range of the SCA was about 1,000 nautical miles so it made refuelling stops at Goose Bay and Keflavik on its way to London Stansted.

  • 7
    $\begingroup$ I hope the range of the SCA was closer to 1500 NM because Goose Bay to Keflavik is about 1300 NM. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 17:16
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @JamesKPolk That's an excellent point. Interestingly, the NASA document cited in mins' answer supports the 1,000nm range claim. It would be interesting if anyone can resolve this. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 18:23
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ I would guess that the 1000 NM range is with a fully-loaded orbiter. The description in mins's answer suggests that, for a trans-Atlantic flight, the orbiter would be modified to reduce its weight. $\endgroup$
    – KRyan
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 20:42
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ Shuttle Enterprise doesn't have working engines. It probably weighs a lot less. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 2:50
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @aCVn astronautix.com/c/challenger.html lists the empty weight 79415kg with engines and that that's a metric ton less than Columbia. My guess is the removal of the engines is more to reduce the weight to allow for the range required rather than to allow the orbiter to be lifted at all. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 5:27

Apparently Yes.

From NASA document Space Shuttle Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) Sites(emphasis mine):

Payloads and/or airborne support equipment will remain onboard the orbiter for the flight back to Kennedy Space Center unless the capability of the shuttle carrier aircraft, landing site location or other requirements dictate otherwise.

The document also details the procedure to be followed in case the TAL is to be used. TAL sites were 'activated' prior to launch and a C-130 was kept on standby for evacuation and emergencies.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .