Had the space shuttle ever launched out of Vandenberg AFB, its primary transoceanic abort landing (TAL) site would have been Mataveri International Airport (SCIP) on Rapa Nui (Easter Island; Isla de Pascua), a selection forced by the lack of other usable islands in far eastern Polynesia.

Unfortunately, Mataveri is also the most remote airport in the world, 2602 kilometers from the nearest other airport, Totegegie Airport (NTGJ) in extreme southeastern French Polynesia,1 and the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft has a range of only 1850 kilometers when carrying the shuttle.

Would the SCA have been modified to give it extra range for retrieving the shuttle from a Mataveri TAL, would the shuttle have returned by sea, would the shuttle have been disassembled at Mataveri and flown out in one or more ordinary cargo planes, or would something else have happened?

EDIT: Aaand it turns out that Totegegie's runway isn't long enough to accommodate an SCA cum shuttle - the SCA would likely have to somehow fly all the way from Mataveri to Hao (NTTO), which is even further away. Don't know how I missed that earlier!

1: Upon further examination, it appears that there isn't even any land outside the Rapa Nui group that's within mated-SCA range of Mataveri - even Henderson Island in the Pitcairn group, the closest other land to Mataveri, is still just out of range, at ~1912 kilometers. (It also happens to be uninhabited and have no airport, but, even if NASA had had an airport built on Henderson, it still wouldn't have been close enough.)

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    $\begingroup$ ISTR there was a special portable mate/demate device (to lift the orbiter onto the SCA) that would fit into a C-5. Not sure about the SCA range issue, though, good question. $\endgroup$ Commented May 31, 2018 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ Just guessing so not a proper answer, but why would they go through all that pain when a moderately sized crane and a small-ish barge can do the trick. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 7:45
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    $\begingroup$ FYI, a fun book was written about this some time ago. Check out Shuttle Down. $\endgroup$
    – Digger
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Diego Sánchez - I think maritime transportation would be very challenging, if ever possible. Look at google map. Although Rapa Nui seaport is close to airfield, the main problems are: 1) a wide road should be built to transport the shuttle at the port 2) hangar for the shuttle should be built very quickly, to protect from environment, until the road is ready and tranport ship have arrived, 3) Rapa Nui seaport is tiny, not easy to find a ship able to carry space shuttle but small enough to fir the port 4) very much insulation from seawater and other factors for the shuttle would be needed $\endgroup$
    – Heopps
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Heopps: On the plus side, we do know that the ground there is stable enough to support the overland transport of a Space Shuttle orbiter, given that the orbiter's empty weight was 68.6 tonnes, which is lighter than several of the moai (the heaviest of which weighs in at 86 tonnes). $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 14:44

2 Answers 2


Some work on refueling capability for the SCA was done:

Studies were conducted to equip the SCA with aerial refueling equipment, a modification already made to the U.S. Air Force E-4 (modified 747-200s) and 747 tanker transports for the IIAF. However, during formation flying with a tanker aircraft to test refueling approaches, minor cracks were spotted on the tailfin of N905NA. While these were not likely to have been caused by the test flights, it was felt that there was no sense taking unnecessary risks. Since there was no urgent need to provide an aerial refueling capacity, the tests were suspended.

This thread on NASAspaceflight.com dates the testing to 1984.

Perhaps transoceanic abort from a Vandenberg launch was considered unlikely enough that they would accept a temporarily stranded orbiter and finish the development of the refueling capability only if they needed it.

A Vandenberg flight was planned for October 1986, and was canceled by the Challenger accident in January of that year. Having no TAL return solution in place only nine months before the flight doesn't seem like typical NASA contingency planning style to me, so I wouldn't be surprised if they had planned to ferry the shuttle out by ship to a more accessible airfield.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm wondering if the work on providing the SCA with aerial-refuelling capability was to enable it to retrieve a shuttle orbiter from Mataveri if need be - it certainly seems to be either that, or transport the orbiter out by ship (although, given the magnitude of stuff to be removed in order to fly the SCA and orbiter back from some of the more normal TAL sites, including stuff like the SSMEs, disassembling the orbiter and flying it back as "ordinary" cargo is looking less and less extreme). $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ There's a link in that nasaspaceflight.com thread to an LA times article that says "U.S. Embassy officials in Santiago said the NASA project involves lengthening the runway at Mataveri, the island's airport, by 1,420 feet to the 11,055 feet required for a shuttle landing and its eventual piggy-back retrieval by a Boeing 747." They must have been going for the mid-air refueling. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ However, the article has some questionable facts in it - "The nearest alternative airport is located 1,000 miles away in Tahiti, officials said." It's more like 2600 miles. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble: Not to mention that Fa'a'ā is not, in fact, the airport closest to Mataveri; that would be Totegegie, as stated in the original question. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 14:29

Supplementary answer: I've searched the Aviation Week and Space Technology archives for any references to the Easter Island abort site planning. There isn't a lot, but everything I've seen talks only about runway enhancements, nothing about port facility enhancements. The requirement seems to have been to accommodate the "space shuttle and at least one Boeing 747."

Five years later, I was browsing some old AW&ST articles, and found the desired reference. It's in the April 23, 1984 issue in an article titled U.S. Seeks Pacific Site for Shuttle Aborts. The SCA range problem is explicitly discussed there, and

It is the position of some shuttle ground operations official that an inflight refueling capability will be necessary to transport a shuttle out of some contingency sites, especially in the Pacific.

(Original post continues below)

Here are the most relevant articles (no links, because behind paywall)-

AW&ST June 17, 1985

##‘Minor Improvements’ A Chilean contractor has begun initial design work for what NASA terms "minor improvements" to the airfield. If the negotiations are concluded successfully, all construction will be performed by Chilean firms under the supervision of Chilean airport authorities. No U.S. officials will be involved.

Under the NASA proposal, the island's single runway would be extended from 9,500 ft. to 11,000 ft., and the overruns extended and built up. Parking ramps would be added or extended to accommodate simultaneously the space shuttle and at least one Boeing 747.

AW&ST March 24, 1986

National Aeronautics and Space Administration has signed a contract with Ingenieria Civil Vicent, S.A., a Chilean contractor, to begin work on a 1,400-ft. extension of the runway on Easter Island (AW&ST June 17, 1985, p. 127). The airport facilities improvements at Easter Island would allow possible emergency landings by space shuttles launched from Vandenberg AFB. NASA and Chilean authorities still must resolve issue of $1.2 million in normal 20% Chilean value-added taxes on materials and transportation that will be included in contractor costs, overlooked in initial negotiations.


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