Friday, 12 August 2011

Mighty machines

The Space Shuttles Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis are now all in various stages of preparation as part of their transformation from mighty flying machines to museum exhibits.

Back in July when I watched Discovery rolled out from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to the giant Vehicle Assembly Building to make room for some work on Atlantis it looked in a sorry state. Engines and the large tail pods had been removed from the rear, as had the flight avionics from the nose cone and thruster jets.

For their new lives in museums these parts will be rebuilt and simulated - so although each spaceship will look as though they could one day fly again into Earth orbit this will never be possible.

It was in April that NASA announced the new permanent homes for the retired spacecraft - Shuttle Enterprise, the first orbiter built for testing but not to fly in space, will move from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York.

The Udvar-Hazy Center will become the new home for Discovery, which retired after completing its 39th mission in March. Endeavour will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles and Atlantis will be displayed at the KSC Visitor’s Complex in Florida.

Yesterday, meanwhile, NASA engineers had the opportunity to play with their toys another time as Discovery and Endeavour were rolled out to switch places.

Discovery, which was temporarily being stored in the VAB, switched places with Endeavour, which has been undergoing decommissioning in OPF-1.

Both Shuttles stopped briefly outside for a ‘nose-to-nose’ photo opportunity, captured in the pictures below by NASA photographer Frankie Martin flying overhead in a helicopter. After the brief pause Discovery (at right) was rolled into OPF-1 and Endeavour into the VAB.

Space Shuttle flying days are over and their fate is now similar to some of the other mighty beasts of the past - the great railway locomotives of the steam age, many of which have now been in retirement for decades.

I spent a day at the UK’s National Railway Museum in the city of York this week viewing at some of these engineering marvels up close. Each of these rail transport legends - ranging from Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ looked pristine and ready to fire up.

It was a timely visit as the world record-holding Mallard loco (LNER class A4 locomotive 4468) had returned for display in York for the summer holidays.

Mallard holds the world speed record for steam traction on rail, travelling at 126 mph on 3 July 1938. She was designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, who thought of the name 'Mallard' while feeding ducks at Salisbury Hall. Sadly, like the Space Shuttles, she is beyond mechanical repair and can no longer ‘fly’ again.

With over 100 locomotives and nearly 200 other items of rolling stock on show, the National Railway museum tells the story of railways from the early 19th century to the present day.

Some of the engines can still be fired up, and for those who need a fix of the real steam and smoke experience there’s a working engine near some of the outside displays, towing children and adults up and down a short piece of track in a guard’s truck.

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