Could the Space Shuttle land at any major airport, if it had to?

You might have noticed on the news that the Shuttle up in space currently has been or was delayed from coming home for like two days, because of less-than-optimal wind conditions.

That got me to thinking.

The Shuttle is typically landed at air bases in California or Florida. I think they can land in Houston as well.

If a situation occurred where weather absolutely prohibited landings at any of those locations, and they really had to get it out of space, what would NASA do?

I’m sure they have a contingency plan for making landings almost anywhere on the globe, in case the Shuttle had to hightail it out of space and couldn’t wait.

Could it land on the longest runway of a major airport?

Google. “space shuttle contingency landing”

If memory serves me correctly, the Shuttle needs a longer runway to land than is usually available. That’s why they can only land at certain places. I imagine they could always land it at that place where all the car commercials are made (and where they break the land speed record).

According some numbers I’ve seen, a fully loaded 747 needs about 9,000 - 10,000 feet of runway. If I’m reading this table right (hope that link works), the shuttle uses about the same range. I’m going on the “Total Rollout” column. I don’t know how many airports can handle 747s, but I’m sure all the major ones can. I’m not sure that landing at O’hare would be a good idea, though.

Probably a lot of military bases around the world can also handle a shuttle landing.

c_goat, you’re talking about the Bonneville Salt Flats. I wondered about that too, but according the linked site,

The flats are actually covered in water during the winter. I think landing the shuttle here would end up with it stuck in the mud.

I really don’t see why not. The impression I’ve always had is that the landing places for the Space Shuttle have always depended upon security considerations. You wouldn’t want to land in say, Iraq, would you? Other than that it’s just a heavy glider at landing. It does have brakes, it does have a drag chute, so why not? Still, other than the Challenger debacle, there hasn’t been a genuine five-alarm emergency in the Shuttle’s 20-year history, so presumably a landing such as the one you describe has never been attempted. Sooner or later, though, I’m sure we’ll find out the hard way.

Thanks, DDG.

Now, then.

The number of contingency sites seems surprisingly small. It wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that weather could be very bad at all of them, at once. Or that, if time was of the essence to leave space, that all could be out of range.

Jeff: Interesting. It sounds like it could land at an airport.

Supposedly, Carswell AFB(or so it used to be called) here in FT. Worth, Texas(it’s actually just across the runway from Lockheed, where I work), is on the list of places it can land. At least thats what a freind of mine told me(he’s a Fire Marshal at the base).

The runway at Kennedy is built like this.

Find an airport that matches those specifications.

P.S. Eh, c.goat, I don’t see Bonneville Salt Flats on the contingency list, even though it’s 10 miles long.

However, there are other factors involved, besides just “length of runway”.

Maybe they can’t land it at Bonneville because it’s too hard (or expensive) to get it back to Florida.

Also, maybe the Rockies make for unstable weather patterns for Bonneville. The shuttle has to start its approach from a considerably further distance than a 747, so maybe the weather can change too fast for NASA’s taste.


Ben Guerir:

Moron: It’s actually Moron de la Frontera, or Moron AFB. I can’t find anything that says what size its runway is.

Trans-atlantic Abort Sites:

And now I’m getting tired, I’ll let Milo take over. :slight_smile:

In this earlier thread where I posed a similar question, I was informed that NASA has had to dig further than two deep in its list of backup sites only once: for a combination of several reasons, they once had to land at White Sands Missile Range in NM back in the early days.

I’d recommend that any interested parties check out that thread - while not directly related to what Milossarian is asking, there’s a lot of good links about space shuttle contingency sites and such.

I crewed a 35’ out to The Azores a couple of summers ago (it’s somewhere between the Caribbean and southern Portugal) and the common belief out there is that the US Military base on one of the islands (there are 7 and I don’t recall which one had the base) has been specially extended to cater for this very emergency.

A mid-Atlantic site makes sense if the Shuttle has to overshoot without too much notice but I wasn’t able to confirm the locally held belief.

In his circa 1981 novel, “Shuttle Down” , author Lee Corey (which I think was a pen name for G. Hank Stine) describes in meticulous detail the emergency landing of a shuttle (launched from Vandenberg in a polar orbit) on Easter Island. The book gives the impression of being meticulously researched. As I recall, it was short for landing (but they had no choice), but the real problems were servicing the shuttle after landing (apparently there are a LOT of things that have to be done after touchdown, none of which your typical airport is set up to do) and the subsequent lengthening of the runway so that they could fly the shuttle back out on the back of another plane.

Clearly, NASA wants some big-assed, wide-assed runways to land the Shuttle.

But is that more precautionary than necessary? Particularly on a more typical landing trajectory? It’s hard to know.

Sometime ago, they catalogued all of the airports the Shuttle could land at in case of an emergency. They need a runway with at least 12,000 feet of room. I can’t cite this, but I heard it from the air traffic controller at the Calgary airport during a little toury thing.


A great story! Lot’s of complications with the authorities such as “where’s your airworthyness certificate?”

Hey, I work for Lockheed Martin too. Sounds like you work with neat stuff (airplanes). I’m stuck in a stuffy office in Arlington, VA.

One consideration (in addition to the “shut down” procedures that have to be taken care of before the astronauts may exit) is that the Shuttle has to be taken back to Florida. To do this, they put it on top of a specially-modified Boeing 747. How do they get it up there? Well, at EAFB they have a facility to do it. I’d assume there are similar facilities at the other landing sites. But not at JFK or LAX.

Of course, the main consideration is to get the astronauts down safely. The spacecraft is expendable, whereas the crew isn’t. There are a lot of places it could land if it came down to the lives of the crew.

This link ( ) describes a shuttle runway being built on Kiribati (an island in the Pacific…on the equator almost due south of Hawaii).

As Johnny L.A. mentioned I imagine that in a pinch the Shuttle might try to land on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago. Good choice? Obviously not but if the choice is a chance landing there or certain death in space I bet they’d take their best shot at a landing on the expressway.

Also, and I can find no cite for this, I thought I read somewhere that the landing strip at EAFB is stunningly precise. No bumpy runway here but a basically smooth runway that actually conforms to the curvature of the earth (so each end seems higher off the ground than the center creating a very flat surface). Is this necessary for a Shuttle to land? I have no idea. I did look for a cite for this but so far no luck. Anyone else here of this?

My parents live in Moses Lake, WA on the old Air Force Base there. The runway is currently being used to train Japan AirLines pilots, and it’s also used by Boeing for testing some of their planes, etc. But there was a rumor in town that, in the event California AND Florida were socked in by bad weather, Moses Lake would be the back up landing site. After reading the other posts in this thread, I’m wondering now if this IS just a rumor, or if there is some truth to it. I’d guess it might have a grain of truth, since the landing site WAS once under control of the US military. Can anyone elucidate?

I used to work at EAFB, and I don’t remember hearing that about the runways there. EAFB not only has the concrete runways, but also the dry lakes. During the rainy season (generally February through April or May), the lake beds fill with water. The high winds push the water around and make a very smooth surface. It’s not very deep. Once I was driving into work, and someone put a big plywood shark’s fin out away from the shore. I wish I had taken a picture. There is actual sea life in the lakes: Brine shrimp hatch when the lakes are full. The eggs can lie dormant for (IIRC) 100 years. When the lakes dry, the shrimp die and the eggs await the next rains.

Rumour has it that gravel for the concrete main runway was taken from Tropico Gold Mine during WWII. Since we needed a runway, no one bothered to extract any gold that might have been in the gravel. Of course this tidbit was passed on by the tour guide at Tropico, so it could very well be apocryphal. (BTW: There are no more tours of Tropico. Insurance.)