One final voyage for NASA’s shuttle 747

HOUSTON — Steven Ramey is standing inside a Boeing 747 fuel tank, and he’s having the time of his life.

Pointing to where the aircraft’s 50,000-pound wing attaches to the fuselage, Ramey notes where bolts are being removed.

“This is the first time we’ve pulled off a wing,” the Boeing employee says. “It’s great. We get to come in here, like a bunch of kids, tear it apart and then put it back together.”

The wing belongs to NASA 905, a jumbo jet that ferried dozens of space shuttles from landing sites in California and New Mexico back to Florida. Now stationed at Ellington Field, the aircraft, which is 232 feet long and 63 feet tall, is being disassembled for an 8-mile move in late April to Space Center Houston.

In its current state, the plane is yet another reminder that the shuttle program is now part of history.

An “Aircraft on Ground” team from Boeing is carefully removing parts and the bolts that attach them, and storing them for reassembly. Although the plane will break into nine big pieces for the trip, there are thousands of smaller pieces. Cranes and drills and airplane parts are strewn everywhere.

“One of our biggest logistics problems is keeping track of the parts,” Ramey told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s kind of like we are moving a puzzle from one location to another.”

Later this year Ramey and his team will put the plane back together, a 44-day process that will reverse the work they’re currently doing. Then the museum will place a space shuttle mock-up — Independence — atop it. In 2015, both the aircraft and shuttle will open as an interactive, six-story display.

The museum needs about $12 million to move the aircraft and set it up for display, said Jack Moore, a spokesman for the facility. They’ve raised $9 million, with a large chunk of that from an in-kind donation by Boeing employees like Ramey.

The crew, most of whom are from Washington state, were eager to tackle this kind of assignment. It’s a happier job than, say, the more typical work of rescuing an aircraft that’s gone off the end of a runway.

“I’ve been in the industry for 20 years and I don’t think anyone in this group had done this before,” said Tom Conant, a Boeing ground team captain.

Even after breaking down the mammoth aircraft, the move across the Clear Lake area will be an arduous, two-night affair.

During the first night, the 1,000-foot trailer convoy will move from Ellington down Highway 3 to NASA Road 1. On the second night, it will proceed along NASA Road 1 to Space Center Houston.

Working with area municipalities as well as Comcast, Verizon and Centerpoint Energy, the museum was able to ensure that no area residents will lose services.

While the move will occur at night to minimize traffic disruptions, as parts of Highway 3 and NASA Road 1 will be closed, it should nonetheless be a public spectacle and there will be viewing locations along the way.

Although it may seem audacious to plant a shuttle atop an aircraft, the combination weighed less than a fully booked 747 with passengers and their luggage.

Built in 1970, NASA 905 was one of the first 100 aircraft in Boeing’s 747 line, of which there have now been 1,500 made. NASA acquired the plane from American Airlines in 1974 and began testing it with space shuttle Enterprise — which never flew into space — in 1977.

In addition to carrying the active orbiters across the country, the aircraft also once carried Enterprise to Europe for display in England and at the Paris Air Show.

It was also the aircraft that carried Enterprise and the operational shuttles Discovery and Endeavour to their retirement homes in New York, Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, respectively.

NASA 905 made its last flight in December 2012. Now the grounded aircraft has but one trip before a final retirement.

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