Thursday, October 29, 2009

Spacecraft of the Week #9

Another late entry, but this weeks' Spacecraft of the Week' celebrates the first flight of the Space Shuttle program. Before Columbia was first launched in 1981, NASA conducted a series of free-flights with Enterprise, OV-101. Taking flight piggy-backed on top a specially modified 747 purchased from American Airlines, Enterprise would be released to glide back to the runway, providing a valuable cache of data needed to refine landing techniques after spaceflight. Unpowered, at least for flight, it would not glide as much as proceed through a controlled fall, much like a flying squirrel drops and swoops from one tree to another or the ground. Only when it nears the ground and raises its nose is there enough lift created by its wings to truly be flying. (And Truly was flying! Dick Truly, destined to fly the orbiter to space and become NASA Administrator was one of Enterprise's pilots!) A soon as this happens, though, drag increases and airspeed rapidly drops. The goal is to have wheels on ground before airspeed reaches stall conditions, when the vehicle really would fall. Despite the complexity, astronaut pilots have had remarkable success in bringing the spacecraft to the runway - mostly due to their training on a modified Gulfstream V. And how did NASA know how to modify the Gulfstream? With the data collected by Enterprise, of course.

In the words of Buzz Lightyear, "This isn't flying. It's falling... with style!"

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