The day the Space Shuttle landed in Gloucestershire
The Space Shuttle, Discovery, has now been back in orbit for the first time since the Columbia tragedy in February 2003. But do you remember the time when it touched down in Gloucestershire?
Emergency rescue teams will be on stand-by at RAF Fairford, on Monday morning (8th August 2005), as the space shuttle Discovery re-enters the earth's atmosphere.
The Cotswold airbase is one of the emergency landing sites for the space craft. If the shuttle is diverted to Faiford the crews may get as little as 20 minutes' notice as it re-enters the atmosphere at 17,000 miles an hour.
Thankfully the shuttle has never had to use Fairford in an emergency, but it has been there! In 1983 a shuttle attached to the top of a Jumbo Jet touched down there en route to the Paris Air Show. This picture shows just what an impressive sight it was...
The Space Shuttle came to RAF Fairford in 1983
RAF Fairford is one of what NASA calls its Transoceanic Abort Landing Sites for the space shuttle. The Fairford rescue teams are trained by NASA and run a training exercise for an emergency shuttle landing about once a year. The teams cover everything from getting injured astronauts out of the shuttle to cutting off their space suits. So why Fairford?
Well, when the shuttle blasts off from Cape Canaveral in Florida it heads east across the Atlantic so it's coming towards Europe.
If things go wrong it means it won't be able to stray very far from its course so emergency landing sites can't be too far north or south of its trajectory. And, of course, it needs long enough runways. That narrows the options down to two airstrips in Spain, two in North Africa, one in India and, of course Fairford.
Fairford could be called into action if there's a problem between two and a half minutes and around eight minutes after take-off.
Any earlier and it would land back in Florida. Any later than eight minutes and it would complete one orbit before returning to California.
So what happens when Fairford is one of the designated emergency landing sites?
The Cotswold base is put on stand-by five days before launch. 35 NASA personnel and two support aircraft will fly into Fairford 48 hours before launch.
If there is a problem the Fairford rescue crews would get about half an hour's notice before it touched down in Gloucestershire. The shuttle would approach England at 350,000 feet, the engines would be shut off and the giant fuel tank jettisoned.
200 miles from Gloucestershire the landing sequence for Fairford is entered into the shuttle's computer. It's still flying at seven times the speed of sound.
Six minutes from Fairford and it's down to 82,000 feet and travelling at Mach 2.5. The air brakes are engaged.
Five minutes out and the shuttle's still flying at the speed of sound.
Four minutes from Fairford and the commander will take manual control.
Three minutes from touchdown and the shuttle makes a wide turn to lose speed and line up on the runway.
Two minutes out and the shuttle is at 13,000 feet and the airbrakes are closed.
At an altitude of eighteen hundred feet and just over a mile from Fairford's runway the commander pulls up the nose before the shuttle touches down at a speed of nearly 300 miles an hour.
Unless seriously injured the crew would fly from Fairford three hours after landing to a special facility in Spain for checks before returning to the United States.
last updated: 11/10/07
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