Retired NASA pilot Frank Marlow can still remember how honored he felt when he flew the first shuttle carrier aircraft, NASA 905.
A NASA space shuttle was not the most expensive thing he ever carried on an aircraft — that distinction went to the glass for the Hubble Space Telescope — but it could have been the thing about which he was proudest, he said.
“When you came in to land, highways were covered with cars waiting for its arrival,” said Marlow, who started flying the modified Boeing 747 in 1991. “We were bringing home America’s shuttle, and everyone wanted to see it.”
Beginning Saturday, the ferry aircraft and the space shuttle replica named Independence, which is mounted on top of Space Center Houston’s newest exhibit, Independence Plaza, will be open to the public.
“This is the biggest thing we’ve done since we opened in 1992,” said Richard Allen, president and CEO of Space Center Houston. “It’s amazing, the number of people who have seen the 747 with the shuttle fly — to have that here is incredible for us.”
The $12 million exhibit, four years in the making, features a six-story interactive exhibit showcasing the flight deck, mid-deck and payload sections of both aircrafts.
The new exhibit will allow visitors to go aboard both the modified 747 and the shuttle mockup mounted on top, just as the real shuttles were mounted during their cross-country ferry flights.
“People used to stand back and look in awe at all the other shuttles in California,” said Paul Spana, exhibits manager at Space Center Houston. “I want to tell them, ‘Come to Houston and you’ll get to go inside one.’”
Prior to being on display in front of Space Center Houston, the shuttle had been at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Spana said.
Independence Plaza is the world’s only shuttle replica mounted on a carrier aircraft and the only one where the public will be able to enter both, Spana said.
Through the exhibit, visitors will have a rare, first-hand glimpse into the historic shuttle era and learn about its influence on space exploration.
Engineers and designers worked to keep the integrity of the original aircraft, to preserve as much of the history as possible, he said.
Both the plane and the inside of the shuttle have been transformed into learning spaces, complete with artifacts and other interactive exhibits tracing the history of the nation’s shuttle program.
That level of access at the exhibit is unprecedented, Spana said.
One of the exhibits inside the 747, which is most meaningful to many NASA officials, is the actual model that engineer John Kiker flew at Ellington Field when trying to come up with the concept of a modified aircraft carrying the space shuttle.
“The whole exhibit is part of a space timeline,” Spana said.
Through the exhibit, Space Center Houston officials hope to extend the destination’s already broad reach. Last year alone, Space Center Houston brought in almost 1 million guests, Allen said.
Visitors will have the opportunity to take a quiz developed by the same NASA psychologist who picks the astronauts who go to Mars. Each person’s answers will shape a computer’s recommendation as to the best NASA career for that person, from astronaut to graphic designer, Spana said.
Space Center Houston officials said they hoped that kind of knowledge would spark the interest among young people in space-related careers.
“It gives us an additional platform to help the youth understand the importance of space and exploration,” Allen said. “It’s an incredible opportunity.”
For information, visit www.spacecenter.org.