KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility
(SLF), first opened for flights in 1976, was specially designed
for returning Space Shuttle orbiters. The runway is longer
and wider than those found in most commercial airports, yet
comparable in size to runways designed for research and development
The paved runway is 15,000 feet
(4,572 meters) long, with a 1,000-foot (304.8-meter) overrun
on each end. The width is about the length of a football field,
300 feet (91.4 meters), with 50-foot (15.2-meter) asphalt
shoulders on each side. The KSC concrete runway is 16 inches
(40.6 centimeters) thick in center, and 15 inches (38.1 centimeters)
thick on the sides. The landing strip is not perfectly flat;
it has a slope of 24 inches (61 centimeters) from the center
line to the edge to facilitate drainage.
The Shuttle Landing Facility includes a
550-foot by 490-foot (167.6-meter by 149.3-meter) parking apron, or ramp,
on the southeastern end of the runway. On the northeast corner of the ramp
is the Mate/Demate Device (MDD). The MDD is 150 feet (45.7 meters) long,
93 feet (28.3 meters) wide and 105 feet (32 meters) high. It can lift up
to 230,000 pounds (104,328 kilograms).
Although a single landing strip, it is
considered two runways, depending on the approach: from either the
northwest on Runway 15 or from the southeast on Runway 33.
In comparison, Orlando International
Airport’s longest runway is 12,004 feet (3,659 meters) long and 200 feet
(61 meters) wide. The John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York
has a runway nearly as long, 14,572 feet (4,441.5 meters), but much
narrower at 150 feet (45.7 meters). O’Hare International Airport in
Chicago has a runway 13,000 feet (3,962.4 meters) long and 200 feet (61
meters) wide; and Miami International Airport’s longest runway is 13,002
feet (3,963 meters) long by 150 feet (45.7 meters) wide.
In contrast, the prime alternate orbiter
landing site, Edwards Air Force Base in California, has several dry lake
bed runways and one hard surface runway on which an orbiter can land. The
longest strip, part of the 44-square-mile (114-square-kilometer) Rogers
Dry Lake, is 7.5 statute miles (12.1 kilometers) long. Concrete runways
are generally preferred for night landings so the dust from the lake bed
does not obscure the lighting.
About the size of a DC-9 jetliner, a Space
Shuttle orbiter does not require such a large runway for landing. However,
EAFB offers an extra safety margin because of its choice and size of
The orbiter differs in at least one major
aspect from conventional aircraft; it is unpowered during re-entry and
landing so its high-speed glide must be perfectly executed the first time
— there is no go-around capability. The orbiter touchdown speed is 213
to 226 miles (343 to 364 kilometers) per hour.
In the case of a landing orbiter, foreign
object debris (FOD) becomes a potential hazard. Any material that does not
belong on or over the surface of the runway environment is considered FOD.
Workers check the runway for FOD up to about 15 minutes prior to landing.
Birds also are a hazard to the orbiter, as
well as to other aircraft. This "airborne FOD" could damage the
orbiter’s delicate outer skin of thermal protection system materials.
Birds are of special concern at KSC because most of the Center is a
national wildlife refuge that provides a home to more than 330 native and
migratory species of birds. SLF employees use special pyrotechnic and
noise-making devices, as well as selective grass cutting, to discourage
birds around the runway.
When an orbiter lands anywhere other than
KSC, it must be ferried back to Kennedy Space Center riding piggyback
style atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. The MDD enables the orbiter to be
lifted off the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and placed on the runway.
Conversely, when an orbiter needs to be ferried to California for
maintenance, the MDD is used to lift the orbiter so it can be attached to
the SCA for its ferry flight.
Whether an orbiter lands here on its own or
atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, it is then towed by a diesel-powered
tractor to processing facilities via a two-mile (3.2-kilometer) tow-way
from the Shuttle Landing Facility.
Adjacent to the MDD is the Landing Aids
Control Building, which houses equipment and the personnel who operate the
Shuttle Landing Facility on a daily basis. Other aircraft operations at
the SLF include the astronauts’ T-38 trainers; the Shuttle Training
Aircraft, NASA’s flying orbiter simulators, military and civilian cargo,
South of the midfield point east of the
runway are the control tower, the orbiter recovery convoy staging area for
the recovery team, a fire station and a viewing area for press and guests.
The control tower provides positive control of all local flights and
ground traffic, including support aircraft for shuttle launch and end of
mission, DOD and NASA helicopters for security, medical evacuation and
rescue, and NASA weather assessment aircraft.
The orbiter recovery convoy staging area
holds 20 to 30 specially designed vehicles or units to safe the orbiter,
assist in crew departure and tow the vehicle to processing facilities.
Responsibility for the orbiter is usually handed from Johnson Space Center
to Kennedy Space Center after the orbiter’s cool-down and crew
departure, usually within an hour after touchdown.
The press and guest viewing areas are on a
mound east of the convoy area. Entrance is from Sharkey Rd. There are
bleachers, platforms and a NASA Public Affairs operations building.