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Landing the Space Shuttle Orbiter at KSC
Release No. FS-2000-05-30-KSC
Revised May 2000
A version of this fact sheet dated March 1992 is available.

Shuttle Landing Facility

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Aerial view of the Shuttle Landing Facility


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 facilities.



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 landing strips.

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, and helicopters.

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.

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