Related to my other question: What are the benefits of using pyrotechnics on spacecraft?

When the Space Shuttle was first flight tested (Enterprise approach and landing tests) it was released from a mount on top of a specially modified 747. How was that release mechanism designed? Was it based on NASA standard initiators, or did it use some sort of non-pyrotechnic latch?


1 Answer 1


The mount on the top of the 747 (the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft) for the drop tests was very similar to the one used throughout the program for ferry flight. The major difference was that the legs on the forward support strut for the drop tests were 13 feet long instead of the normal 8.5 feet long used for ferry flight, and included a fairing/drag strut on the aft of each leg. The extra length was to pitch the Orbiter up relative to the SCA to aid in vehicle separation.

You can compare the drop test and operational forward attach in these photos.

enter image description here enter image description here

Both mounts interfaced with the Orbiter in the same fittings that it used to be mounted on the External Tank for launch.

The release mechanisms were indeed pyrotechnic. From the Approach and Landing Test Final Report:

A.1.5.1 Mechanical Separation

The separation system provided the capability to release the orbiter from the carrier aircraft . This was accomplished by pyrotechnic frangible bolts at three structural attachments, one forward and two aft. Load sensors at each of the structural attachment interfaces provided measurement of the loads between the orbiter and carrier. Separation of electrical umbilicals was accomplished by pull-apart connectors subsequent to structural attachment separation using relative separation motion.

One problem was discussed

4.2.4 Pyrotechnics

Pyrotechnic functions that were required to operate did so normally. These consisted of (1) actuation of the strut that assisted the hydraulics in deploying the nose landing gear and ( 2 ) carrier aircraft / orbiter separation. Shock from the separation system explosive bolts caused the electrical connector to be damaged during separation. On orbital flights, the orbiter / external tank separation system electrical connector will be replaced after each flight . A potential problem identified prior to flight 1 was that, with a single-point failure, a pyrotechnic initiator controller at the forward or aft attach points could fire when armed without the "fire 1" or "fire 2" command being present. To preclude this possibility, modifications were made on the pyrotechnic initiator controller separation circuits so that, even with a failure, a controller would not operate prematurely.

enter image description here

Additional reference: Jenkins, Space Shuttle, 1992 edition, page 134

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    $\begingroup$ "Separation of electrical umbilicals was accomplished by pull-apart connectors subsequent to structural attachment separation using relative separation motion" is a whole lot of words to say "the cables were just, y'know, yanked out." $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 2:06
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ NASA: Never A Straight Answer :) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 2:06
  • $\begingroup$ I've linked to this question here. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ you might find this shuttle-related answer interesting $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 22:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Speaking of external carriage, have you seen this?: i.pinimg.com/originals/39/a4/96/… $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 22:54

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