Mystery solved regarding airport role in shuttle mission

Mystery solved regarding airport role in shuttle mission

By John Kanelis

Sara Freese took up her job as Amarillo aviation director 18 months ago and immediately on her arrival in the Texas Panhandle, she heard what many other residents had heard.

It was that Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport served as an alternate landing site for the nation's space shuttle missions. It had a sufficiently lengthy runway. It had the appropriate infrastructure to handle a ship returning from Earth orbit.

Freese learned, though, that what she had heard is a myth. It's not true. The National Aeronautic and Space Administration did not ever designate AMA as an alternate landing site for the space shuttle.

"I cannot find anything in our files that would indicate that Amarillo's airport was used or was identified for use as an alternate landing site," Freese said.

She had "heard about it when I arrived," Freese added.

Her reaction to learning the truth about it? "I was somewhat surprised," she said. "I know aviation and I love the space program. I just couldn't ever find evidence of the airport having that designation."

Stephen Garber, a Washington, D.C.-based historian with NASA, confirmed what Freese learned. "To the best of our knowledge," Garber said, "(Amarillo's) airport was never an alternate landing site for the shuttle."

Yes, the runway is long enough, Freese said. The main runway is 13,502 feet long, with 1,000-foot "overrun" runways on either end of the main landing area, she said. "Yes, it definitely could have handled the shuttle landing here," she said, "especially with the overruns."

NASA did designate Edwards Air Force Base and the White Sands testing grounds as alternate sites for the shuttle program, Freese said. The next site is at Lincoln, Neb., which has an active Air Force base.

The space shuttle program ended with the flight of the shuttle Atlantis, which launched on July 8, 2011.

Freese noted that the airport staff was trained fully to handle the landing and takeoff of the times the shuttle rode piggyback aboard a Boeing 747 and had to stop at AMA en route from the West Coast to Cape Canaveral, Fla.  (2007 NewsChannel 10 Story about Space Shuttle in Piggy Back landing at Amarillo Airport)

Therein might lie the source of what Garber called the "confusion" over AMA's status as an alternate landing site. "Perhaps part of the confusion stemmed from the fact that the shuttle carrier aircraft topped for their refueling on its way from Edwards Air Force Base to the Kennedy Space Center a couple of times after the shuttle orbiter had already returned safely to Earth," he said.

Freese said as well that had the airport been designated as an alternate landing site, airport officials would have had to divert all commercial traffic to the backup runway, leaving the main strip available for a returning shuttle craft.

The backup runway stretches to 7,901 feet, which Freese said is sufficient to handle even the largest commercial aircraft in use.

Clearing the path for an incoming shuttle is vital, said Freese, noting that the shuttle becomes a "big glider" as it approaches its landing area. "You can't change the speed or the craft or change direction," as it didn't descend under power.

Freese's memories of the space program date back to the earliest days of the shuttle flights, beginning in April 1981 with the launch of the Columbia and its two-man crew: veteran Gemini and Apollo astronaut John Young and Robert Crippen.

Her most stirring and shocking early memory of the space program, Freese said, was of the shuttle Challenger explosion 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts aboard, including the New Hampshire school teacher, Christa McAuliffe.

"It just amazes me that the brain power we had could launch such a ship on a limited budget," Freese said, "and it worked."

Freese obtained her pilot's license while she was still in high school and is qualified to fly single-engine aircraft, although she said, "I did get some time flying multi-engine airplanes and helicopters." Freese also added that she has "favorite airplanes" from the various eras of flight dating back to World War II.

Freese said she has maintained a deep love affair with aviation ever since those days in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I'll know it's time to retire from this job when I come to work, look out the window and no longer love looking at those airplanes," she said.

Freese, of course, is well aware of Rick Husband, after whom the airport was named after Husband's death on Feb. 2, 2003 when, while commanding the shuttle Columbia, the spaceship disintegrated while re-entering the atmosphere over Texas; all seven astronauts aboard the shuttle died that day.

"It would have been neat to experience a landing of the shuttle," Freese said. But she added – with a hint of wistfulness, "Then again, I wish we still had a shuttle program."

"There just is something quite special about going into space," she added, "that is lost now."