Space shuttle's piggyback plane unveiled

Story highlights

  • Museum unveils exhibit with first NASA 747 to ferry space shuttles
  • NASA 905 is a 747-123 model built in 1970 that flew the shuttle 223 times
  • The ex-American Airlines Jumbo Jet carried Endeavour, Discovery and Enterprise to their final destinations

(CNN)It may sound impossible to some, but once upon a time, airplanes regularly took off and landed with 83-ton spaceships on their backs.

Someone has wisely decided to put one in a museum.
    On Saturday, Space Center Houston in Texas unveils an exhibit featuring one of two powerful Boeing 747s that NASA used to piggyback space shuttles thousands of miles across the country for decades. They called this particular plane NASA 905.
    The museum is throwing a huge party for this 747, including astronauts, skydivers and fireworks -- all centered around Independence Plaza, where a replica space shuttle called Independence sits on top of the airplane.
    Visitors will be able to go inside both the 747 and the Independence to explore exhibits and artifacts from the space shuttle era.
    Museum exhibits manager Paul Spana worked with a Boeing historian who provided photos detailing 747 interiors to help maintain accuracy.
    "Aviation enthusiasts will be excited at the opportunity to see a 747 closer than they would at any airport," Spana said.
    But the flight deck will be off limits to visitors, at least during the first year, when crowds would have a hard time maneuvering the spiral staircase to the cockpit.
    A few of the pilots and flight engineers from this airplane also are expected to be on hand for Saturday's ceremony.
    From the early 1980s to the end of the shuttle program in 2011, the 747s were called upon to ferry shuttles that landed in California back to launch facilities in Florida, flying low and slow, at 13,000-15,000 feet high and about 285 mph.
    So, how did the 905 lift all that weight? For one thing, NASA stripped the plane's main cabins clean.
    It was pretty much the cockpit and a big empty shell. That was it. No seats, galleys, lavatories, bars. No passengers, luggage, food, water, cargo. Built for maximum power, maximum lift.
    NASA changed the original 747 design by adding vertical stabilizers to the plane's tail to improve directional stability.
    It also did a lot of testing on how to attach the spacecraft to the airplane to achieve the best aerodynamics.
    NASA's choice of the 747 to ferry the shuttle is just one more example of the importance of the aircraft.
    Nicknamed the Jumbo Jet when it entered commercial service in 1970 with Pan Am, it was the world's first wide-body airliner, offering unprecedented seating capacity and long range. It helped open up global air travel to an entire generation.
    Forty-five years after its birth, the four-engine 747 is losing favor among some major airlines, which are trading them for more efficient, twin-engine wide-bodies.
    NASA 905 started as a commercial airliner with American Airlines in 1970. NASA bought it as a testing aircraft four years later.
    Reflecting typical button-down NASA culture, the name chosen for its customized 747 was the less-than-exciting Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, or SCA.
    In 2012, NASA 905 ended its 42-year career after delivering the shuttles Enterprise, Discovery and Endeavour to their respective museums in New York, Virginia and Los Angeles. The 905 carried space shuttles 223 times.
    NASA's only other Shuttle Carrier Aircraft — a 747-100SR-46 called NASA 911 — is on display at the Joe Davies Heritage Airpark in Palmdale, California.