Two stripped down Space Shuttle orbiters, with pieces missing and covered with mylar and tape, made a rare joint appearance this morning at the Kennedy Space Center.
With the Space Shuttle program now over, the orbiters are undergoing an extensive decommissioning process at the Kennedy Space Center. Space Shuttle Discovery was wheeled out of the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where it was being stored and rolled over to one of two remaining hangers. Shuttle Endeavour was backed out of the hanger facility and wheeled over to the VAB where it will be stored for several months.
Space Shuttle technicians removed the forward reaction control systems (RCS), orbital maneuvering pods (OMS) and the main engines from both shuttles. The RCS and OMS systems contain extremely hazardous chemicals that are being purged at a facility in New Mexico. When the work is done the units will be reattached to the orbiters. The main engines will be put into storage and will likely be used again on a future heavy lift rocket that NASA is developing. The orbiters will receive non-functional mock-up engines that be installed prior to the orbiters departing the Kennedy Space Center for the last time.
Although the orbiters have remained at the Kennedy Space Center between spaceflights over the three decade program, they are rarely photographed together. Up until a few months ago each of the three shuttles had its own hanger, but NASA recently shut one of the facilities down to prepare for commercial spaceflight companies who will be leasing the space from the space agency. Florida Today reports a deal will be announced soon between NASA and a commercial tentant.
NASA Spaceflight, an independent space news site that extensively covers the program, reports that the first orbiter to depart the Kennedy Space Center permanently will be Discovery. The departure date is set for April 12, 2012 – the 31st anniversary of the first launch of the space shuttle program in 1981.