Autopsy of a space shuttle

 Images Orbiter Autopsies 5 Gall Before the space shuttles Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour are placed in their final interment at museums, NASA scientists are dissecting them to remove any hazardous materials and evaluate how the various components held up over years of use. Air & Space Magazine's Greg Freiherr observed some of the autopsies. I'd like to see an iFixit Teardown of one of these orbiters. From Air & Space:

 Images Orbiter Autopsies 7 Gall

Orbiter Processing Facility 2 is all about warnings. The blue metal door leading inside bears two against unauthorized entry, a third about electrical hazards, and a caution against unfastened objects.

Once inside today, the orbiter processing team will remove one of Endeavour’s two orbital maneuvering system pods, which bookend the vertical stabilizer. As the drone of ventilators fills the building, a technician wearing a “Lucky’s Bar” T-shirt thumbs a manual detailing the steps for excising the orbital maneuvering systems. Held by a latticework of steel beams, the pod rotates out and into the free-hang position, ready for the next day’s crew to winch it into retirement.

Long gone are Endeavour’s main engines. Technicians have plucked them with what looks like a Space Age version of a medieval battering ram. Mounted on a 20-foot-high forklift, the steel probe, its tip sheathed in black padding, had pressed into the nozzle of each engine. It extracted them one at a time, hauling them away for storage in a NASA facility at White Sands, New Mexico.

Orbit Autopsies


    1. The engine bay (last picture on blog post) is big enough for five people to have tea on the bottom level, and another three people on the top level. The most exclusive parties will be dance parties held in the cargo bay of the space shuttle.

  1. Been there done that. I spent 3 1/2 years working in the OPFs/VAB and out at the launch pads. Miss it. I think that I’ll wear a Pad Rat t-shirt tomorrow in memory of the shuttles.

  2. As much as I understand that the Space Shuttle never quite lived up to it’s expectations, I think it’s an egregious step to retire them when we haven’t developed any replacement vehicles.  I wish America cared as much about space exploration as we did in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  What a symbolic and systemic failure we have on our hands here.

    1. I wish we had the replacement system ready too, but those things aren’t exactly safe. Even leaving cost considerations aside it’s hard to justify the probability of total crew loss every time one of those things goes up.

    2. Good riddance.

      The know-it-alls at NASA and similar institutes need to check their privilege.  Encouraging the maths and sciences only leads to kids feeling inadequate.  It’s unfair to let the gifted become astronauts until everyone gets a chance to go into space.

      Besides, do you know how many X-boxes you could buy for multi-generational welfare families, for what it costs for one launch?  In these times of economic collapse, spending must be restricted to the essentials.

      And let’s not even get started about how much fuel it takes to reach orbit.  The carbon footprint is obscene.

      The shuttles and the space program are symbols of a bygone era of intellectual decadence, where billions were squandered on satisfying scientific curiosity.  Those days are thankfully behind us.

      This is all, of course, sarcasm.

  3. In that first picture, the shuttles kinda resemble a pair of rusty old “barn-find” hot rods, with mice nesting in the upholstery and a tree growing through the empty engine compartment.  “80% complete, needs TLC, great restoration candidate or awesome potential as rat rod!”

    Fifty years from now, I half expect to see Discovery featured in an article toward the back of Space Rods magazine, having been fully restored and lighting off the NOS main engines (found still wrapped in their original invoices in a disused JPL basement) at the Summer Nationals.

  4. Makes a lot of sense to me (I used to be a rocket scientist in a former life/career, really!).  It’s a pretty unique opportunity to do structural analyses on machines like this, which is essential to designing the next generation.  Assuming that happens, but I digress….  Anyways, I hope the teardown gets down to the level of stress analysis of the main structural components (wing spars, for example)  – it’s done for aircraft; how many chances are there do do it for a spaceplane that has done repeated reentries at mach 25+?  

  5. There is something deeply unsettling about the (former) world’s most technologically advanced nation simply shrugging its shoulders, then tearing apart and analyzing its own works to try to figure out what made it tick in the first place.

    We decided that it’s not even worth trying to inspire the next generations to do better anymore.

    What kinds of crazy shit do they tell kids they should aspire to these days?  This is a serious question.  I’m slightly younger than the shuttle program, but it was still pretty cool growing up… now they have… um… social networking startups?

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