Space Shuttle Pathfinder

Ask any good spacehead how many space shuttles there were and they’ll quickly say, “6: Columbia, Challenger, Endeavour, Discovery, Atlantis, and Enterprise.” They would miss one, though. Her name is Pathfinder, and she’s designated OV-098. She never flew, but she was an important part of the space shuttle program.

In the late 1970s, NASA was preparing Kennedy Space Center for a new space program. The country was struggling, and the mood was dour, but on that little plot of land just north of Cocoa Beach there was a lot of work to do.

NASA isn’t exactly known for its thriftiness, but it does have some. If facilities and equipment can easily be reused from one project to another they will be. Apollo had just ended and there was a humongous building just sitting there. The 526-foot tall Vehicle Assembly Building, aka the VAB to those in the know, would be perfect for putting the orbiter, external tank, and solid rocket boosters together before wheeling the whole thing out to the launch pad. In fact, the Crawler-Transporter that had been hauling Saturn Vs out to the launch pads would also work. In fact, if we just add a new structure onto the side of the launch pad to enclose the cargo bay of the shuttle, we can reuse the launch pad!

There was one orbiter built at this time. We know her as Enterprise. She was a nearly fully functional (no engines or heat shield) version of what would go into space. She would be used to test descents and landing, as well as to prove out the capabilities of a Boeing 747 to carry her across the country. As such, she was a pretty expensive piece of hardware, and we wouldn’t want to break her.

However, it was still necessary to test things out. Such basic tasks as fitting the space shuttle through a doorway, or making sure the turn from the Shuttle Landing Facility to the Orbiter Processing Facility wasn’t too tight would need to be checked out. More delicate tasks like tilting the shuttle up and carrying it over to one of the four bays in the VAB where it would meet its tank and boosters on top of the Mobile Launch Platform needed to be worked out and practiced.

So, a dummy shuttle was commissioned. It would have the roughly same dimensions (actually, it’s a bit shorter) and weight as the real thing, but be wood and steel instead of titanium and aluminum. She would live at KSC and provide the ground personnel with a critical tool for perfecting their skills in handling this new beast.

Once she was no longer needed she went to storage and started rotting into history. Luckily, some enterprising Japanese bought her and refurbished her for the “Great Space Shuttle Exposition” in Tokyo, which ran from 1983 through 1984. Once our friends from the East were done with her, NASA bought her back and put her on a stick at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

She’s still there, though the tips of each of the solid rocket boosters have been removed. In the late 1990s NASA was starting to run out of the tips for the SRB stacks. While the SRBs were designed to be reused, the tip inventory had suffered attrition from damage during reentry and landing. So, Pathfinder made her last contribution to the space shuttle fleet…20 years after she made its first.

[Image Credit: Rycho626]

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