October 23, 2008

Space Shuttle Landing at Wilmington's ILM

Well, most likely, this will never happen. But it could.

Over the weekend, I heard that the Wilmington International Airport is a designated emergency landing site for the shuttle program. In very specific emergency situations, ILM would be the designated landing zone.

So after checking with the expert authority, Google, I confirmed this tale to be true.

So if you ever have a neighbor who comes home from an evening at the Fat Pelican, and he claims that he was buzzed by a NASA shuttle on his return walk, think twice before you chalk it up solely to his Heineken consumption.

Here's a 2001 AP article that explains the relationship.

NASA Names North Carolina Airport Emergency Landing Site for Shuttle

By The Associated Press

January 2001

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- A landing strip at the Wilmington airport could be the safety net for a space shuttle on its way to the International Space Station in the event of massive engine failure.

The New Hanover County Airport Authority approved an agreement with NASA on Tuesday that designates the airport an emergency landing site.

The airport is one of four sites along the East Coast where the shuttle could land after leaving Cape Canaveral in Florida, said Marty Linde, a landing support officer with the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The shuttle has traditionally flown east over the Atlantic Ocean after liftoff, but a series of missions to the space station over the next several years will require a more northerly trajectory, Linde said.

If a problem develops in the first two minutes after launch, the shuttle has the option of returning to Cape Canaveral as long as its two large booster rockets and three rear engines are all firing.

"But if we lose two or three [engines] simultaneously before we get into orbit, we would be looking for a place to land along the East Coast," Linde said.

If a problem strikes about 30 seconds after the booster rockets separate, the pilot has the option of diverting the shuttle to Wilmington, Linde said. The booster rockets separate two minutes and 15 seconds into the flight.

Although the shuttle takes off like a rocket, it lands like a glider.

Recently, the shuttle could not have landed safely on Wilmington's 8,007-foot (2,438-meter) main runway because it needed 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) of stopping room. But new carbon brakes brought the necessary space down to 7,500 feet (2,286 meters), Linde said.

Al Roseman, chairman of the county airport authority, said local officials are excited about the chance to help the space program in the event that it becomes necessary.

The designation as an emergency landing site doesn't require any special training of personnel, though the airport will need to monitor all launches in case an emergency develops within a 15-minute window after liftoff.

"We hope never to have to use it, but nice to know the option is there," Linde said.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration canceled the next shuttle flight, scheduled for Friday, to inspect Atlantis' two solid-fuel rocket boosters. The launch of the space station laboratory, Destiny, is now targeted for no earlier than Feb. 6.
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