NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – White Sands Space Harbor at White Sands Missile Range became a practice facility for landing shuttles starting in 1976. This history of White Sands’ use for shuttle landings is Wednesday’s NewSpace Nexus fun fact.
The shuttles landed as gliders, so the astronauts flying them only had one chance to make a safe landing; this made actual training flights, as well as those done in stationary simulators, crucial.
Four Gulfstream II aircraft were modified to fly like a space shuttle during landing, and the cockpits were outfitted as replicas of shuttle cockpits. Before each shuttle mission, the astronaut assigned to land the craft had to complete 1,000 landings in the training aircraft.
Although some of those practice sessions were done at the shuttle landing sites of Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Edwards Air Force Base in California, most of them were done at White Sands. In addition to being a major training facility, White Sands Space Harbor was the contingency landing site for each space shuttle mission during the program’s duration from 1981 to 2011. If the other two landing sites were unavailable, White Sands would be used.
Although only one shuttle actually landed at White Sands, in 1982, crews and equipment were assembled and ready at the end of every shuttle mission in case they were needed.