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

In addition to the long and thick runway, specialized navigaion equipment is needed at the landing site. The shuttle lands entirely by computer. It needs the microwave landing system in place in order to determine, to the foot (if not inch) it’s location with respect to the touchdown zone. I assume the radar altimeter feeds into the landing computer, so the terrain in the area must be known in advance. In a 747, the pilot takes over once the plane crosses the threshold. This is not so on the shuttle.

IIRC (from pop science?)
One of the more interesting places the SS could land is Easter Island. THere is a paved runway but nothing else. If the SS did have to land there it would be a major project to get it back - basically building all needed facilities.

The air force base in Myrtle Beach, SC closed a few years ago so that no longer is an option. (it was sold and will soon be the site of an amusement park)

I think when they landed in White Sands the Florida runway was not yet ready - back then they always landed at Edwards AFB.

Nah…I get to see um, but I am NT Admin, so I just get to play with the computers in the stuffy office buildings. I work dedicated support for the JSF program, so things are pretty dead right now while we wait until they decide to buy Our JSF over that flying chipper vac that Boing came up with.

There are plenty of runways around that are big enough for the shuttle to land on - here in Edmonton we have a runway that’s 15,000 ft long and 300 ft wide - at one time it actually was a designated shuttle alternate.

In the 50’s, a lot of runways were built around the world to accomodate fully-loaded B-52’s, and all of those runways are big enough for the shuttle. In fact, they’re roughly the size of the runway at Edwards. It’s great PR for NASA to say it has the biggest runway in the world, and it may actually be true, but there are hundreds of runways that are only marginally smaller (like, 14,800 ft long instead of 15,000).

Anyway, the Shuttle doesn’t actually need that much runway to land - they built a 15,000 ft runway to give themselves a big whopping safety margin. I’d guess that the Shuttle actually needs no more than 8-10,000 ft to touch down and stop on, which means it could land on any large commercial runway which services large jets like DC-10’s and 747’s. But it would sure raise the pucker factor.

The reason there are so few designated alternates is because A) they don’t need any more - the shuttle can glide a long way, even from an emergency de-orbit. B) There are serious infrastructure issues with the shuttle - towing it, getting it hoisted back onto the 747, etc., and very few airports would have that equipment, and C) A lot of runways aren’t on the re-entry trajectory from an equatorial orbit, and therefore wouldn’t be used anyway.

The computer can land the shuttle by itself, but shuttle commanders and pilots will tell you (as would any good USAF or commercial pilot) that, unless all the available pilots are incapacitated, they’d rather trust a human than the computer. I do not believe the shuttle has ever been landed solely by computer, though the microwave landing system is used to line the shuttle up during its descent.


Minor nit. Those long runways were originally built to accomodate the B-47, not the B-52. The B-47E had a takeoff run of 10,400 ft without jatos. The B-52G only required 8150 ft. Other B-52 models had shorter takeoff ground runs.(Here’s a site with info on all US military aircraft.) The B-47 was phased out in the early 60s, so pretty much all the bases were also used for the B-52.

Grant County Airport at Moses Lake, WA (mentioned by caircair), formerly Larsen AFB, is one of those former B-47/B-52 bases and has about a 13,000 ft runway, IIRC.

“Boing”? hahahahahahahahahhaahahahahahaha

I work on a PTO contract, so the only airplanes I see are the ones taking off from National Airport. At least I’ve got a view: from the State Department to the Libraries of Congress. Now if they could only get the temperature in my office to vary by less than 20[sup]o[/sup]…

(sorry fo the hijack, no e-mail available.)
I used to do service calls out there. Do the names Brandon, Larkin, or Peterson ring any bells?

later, Tom.

Hey you Lock-Martians be careful! There are more than one of us “Boing” types onboard here! If you make us mad we might come over there and, um, steal your pocket protectors or something!

re: the OP – The X-15, although much smaller, landed about like the Space Shuttle: another a high speed glider with stubby wings. The usual trajectory for their test flights was to fly a generally northern course to the release point and fly south when released. Their emergency landing sites were a series of dry lakes in the Utah/Nevada/California Great Basin region, ending at EAFB. (I think there was even one lake south of Edwards they could use in case of overshoot.) Their primary criterion was a long, flat place hard enough to land on. Several of the emergency landing sites were used. IIRC, on one occasion the X-15 was wrecked on landing when the emergency landing site wasn’t altogether flat (there was an earthen berm).

Of course support for the X-15 was much simpler. It was generally transported on a flatbed truck. But, as has been mentioned, if I was a shuttle pilot and my choices were to land someplace where it would be difficult to retrieve the shuttle -OR- lose the crew and the aircraft, I’d take the former. Even if I knew the runway was going to be short I’d rather skid off the end going 80 mph than fly into unspecified terrain at 300 mph, or whatever their landing speed is.


IIRC (from pop science?)
One of the more interesting places the SS could land is Easter Island. THere is a paved runway but nothing else. If the SS did have to land there it would be a major project to get it back - basically building all needed facilities.

see my post above.

It turns out that there are a large number of emergency landing sites. Included on the list are Halifax, Nova Scotia (or some place very close to it) and Canadian Forces Base North Bay, in Ontario.

One big deciding factor for where they land the shuttle is the presence of a nearby ocean if they need to ditch. It’s better PR to lose a shuttle on approach into the ocean than to crash it into a neighborhood. Most rumored backup landing sites are probably either just rumors or last resort sites that’ll never be used unless everything that can go wrong does - especially if they are hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.