Space shuttle Endeavour rolls down the Shuttle Landing Facility runway past the air traffic control tower. The tower is about 100 feet above the 3-mile-long runway and affords controllers working inside a clear view of the SLF and much of the Kennedy Space Center area. They also have radar and other technology to watch the airspace around the center. Photo credit: NASA
NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility, or SLF, was built for the space shuttle, but it also has hosted an international assortment of gigantic transport aircraft, fighter jets, race cars and even off-course skydivers.
Someone watching from the control tower might in one day see astronauts diving at the runway in a Shuttle Training Aircraft, NASA security helicopters sweeping the area, or a mosquito aircraft spraying near the launch pad perimeter. They also can find themselves making room on the runway for the occasional stray private pilot.
Such is life as an air traffic controller at one of the world's longest runways.
"You never know what's going to happen next," said Ron Feile, who oversees the air traffic control and operations at the SLF for EG&G.
Built a few miles west of the shuttle launch pads at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the landing strip was built for such a unique mission that it may be hard to think of it as an airport. But that's what it is, just ask the folks who man the control tower 100 feet above the 3-mile-long, concrete runway.
"You're always vigilant, you're always on your toes," said Ken Hooks, who has been working as an air traffic controller since 1968.
The control tower at the SLF is relatively new and offers some of the best views around of the spaceport. Standing inside the glass enclosure at the top of the tower, controllers have the same gear that other airports use to monitor and regulate aircraft moving around the area. The space is split between a NASA-focused controller for the runway, and one who works for the Air Force’s Eastern Range.
The controllers oversee rectangles of airspace running far north of Kennedy down to Port Canaveral. If something is flying inside any of the areas, the controllers want to know what it is.
"You'll have all these small little aircraft that are in here and have official business, but you need to know who they are, where they are and what they're doing," Hooks said.
The assortment of aircraft picks up greatly for launches and landings, Feile said. That is when the Kennedy helicopters patrolling the launch pads are joined by Air Force H-60 search-and-rescue helicopters from Patrick Air Force Base and several NASA aircraft. Also, astronauts not on the flight crew for launch fly T-38s and Gulfstream II aircraft on weather reconnaissance missions around the launch site.
The controllers also scan the area for weather concerns and monitor the shuttle servicing convoy and security forces so they can move around the area safely. The tower typically goes into launch or landing mode three days before a liftoff or the end of a mission. They also stay prepared to support unexpected orbiter contingencies throughout the missions.
If the shuttle lands in California, the controllers at Kennedy know to expect one of NASA's modified 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft at the SLF about a week later, with one of the orbiters on its back.
Given its proximity to spacecraft processing facilities, the SLF is also a preferred landing location for transports bearing shuttle payloads, satellites destined for launch aboard an expendable rocket and foreign jets carrying parts of the International Space Station.
The runway has hosted aerobatics teams such as the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels for local air shows.
The tower controllers have a wealth of procedures and resources to call on in case someone breaks the cardinal rules of the airspace, particularly on launch day.
For instance, a private aircraft flew near the space center during a shuttle countdown in 2005 and had to be escorted to a landing by Air Force fighters.
When there is not a shuttle on the pad or landing, there still is plenty to see and do at the SLF. For instance, a skydiver and his tandem jumping partner were blown off course one day by a storm. They landed on a grass strip between the SLF runway and the canal – a point 12 miles from their intended landing zone.
There also was a pilot from the Midwest ferrying an airplane who mistook the 15,000-foot-long shuttle runway for the much smaller landing strip at Merritt Island Airport to the south.
In such cases, the uninvited pilots or skydivers are detained and questioned by Kennedy's security forces before they are allowed to leave. The Federal Aviation Administration also can get involved with intruders depending on the circumstances.
The runway is large enough to host any airplane in the world, so it occasionally is called on for a potential emergency airliner landing, though none have taken place.
Intruders on the runway are not always human, either.
Since the SLF is inside the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, animals of all sorts routinely make their way onto the runway and have to be chased off. Alligators, snakes and turtles may not seem particularly menacing to a multimillion-dollar aircraft, but hitting one of the creatures during a takeoff or landing could easily destroy the landing gear on an astronaut's T-38 jet.
So if a controller spots an animal on the tarmac, an operations vehicle is dispatched to scare them away. A truck approaching a gator from behind is normally enough encouragement to send the creature into the neighboring grass or a canal.
Lately, the vehicles on the runway have taken on unusual shapes as the space agency has cleared the way for more commercial uses of the facility when the shuttles aren't using it.
Starfighters Inc., a company that flies supersonic F-104 aircraft, has begun using the SLF for commercial spaceflight training and related missions.
While cutting-edge aircraft and spacecraft are part of the regular scenery at the SLF, vehicles that never leave the ground are becoming more common at the runway.
NASCAR and Formula 1 racing teams have been wringing out their road rockets on the runway to tweak designs. Tractor-trailers also are trying out new aerodynamic profiles in search of ways to save fuel and money.
As Goldy McKnight, one of the SLF workers who handles operations at the runway said, "We're very diverse out here.”
The Shuttle Landing Facility was the takeoff point for Steve Fossett's record-setting solo flight aboard the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer. Photo credit: NASA
Part of an air traffic controllers duties during launch and landing operations is coordinating the search-and-rescue teams and landing convoy that are on hand for potential shuttle work. Photo credit: NASA
Air shows bring in the biggest variety of aircraft at once for the Shuttle Landing Facility. Here, an F-104 from Starfighters Inc., from bottom, two F-16s, an F-4 Phantom II and a pair of F-18s share the ramp at the SLF before a recent air show. Photo credit: NASA
Since there is no weight limit on the SLF runway, it can host any aircraft in the world, no matter how big. Here, a European transport brings a module for the International Space Station so it can be processed and taken to the orbital laboratory by the space shuttle. Photo credit: NASA
At 3 miles in length and about 100 yards in width, the SLF is one of the largest runways ever built. The black boxes painted on the concrete are the preferred touchdown points for a shuttle returning from space. The SLF complex includes a hangar, control tower, fire station and ramp facilities. Photo credit: NASA
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