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]

  • Awesome! I have a friend that calls Huntsville home. I should take a trip next (first) time I visit.

    Also, reentry is hot!

  • m83

    I don't think you can count Enterprise and Pathfinder as "Space" Shuttles.

    • cmdrfire

      Enterprise is certainly classed as an Orbiter. There were discussions after the Challenger disaster to convert Enterprise into a fully-functioning vehicle, but the decision was taken to build Endeavour instead.
      Pathfinder, as mentioned, is an "honourary" orbiter because of its contributions to the STS programme.

    • BoosterNineNova

      Oh, I think you can count Enterprise. She was OV-101, right? She was supposed to fly in space, just too heavy to retrofit.

  • cmdrfire

    Does anyone know what Explorer and Inspiration at the KSC and the Astronaut Hall of Fame are classed as? When I was at KSC last week for STS-133 the driver taking us out to the causeway called them "million-dollar models of billion-dollar spacecraft" which led me to wondering if they were used for static testing or as "boilerplate" space models or something.
    Externally Explorer is pretty damn close to a real machine.

    • I think those are just mockups for display purposes.

    • BoosterNineNova

      I think Explorer they really worked with as a static test article. Inspiration, I don't know anything about. Love to know more!

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  • BoosterNineNova

    I thought she got her SRB tips back? Thought mockups were made? Also, I thought they took the originals, because all the command and control in an SRB was in that tip, and it was basically from the Endeaover(sp) tragedy. (Yeah I know that happened on re-entry, but for some reason we lost both boosters on launch 14 days before. Very weird.)
    It matters, cause they tossing retired shuttles up to NY and places in CA no one can get too, so I would at least like to see Pathfinder made whole. Explorer isn't . . .. well good. It's neat you can walk around inside, but made of solid steel and no attempt to duplicate the cockpit or middeck. Maybe we throw some money at that for the kids?

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