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Wikipedia writes to say

Buran was the first space shuttle to perform an unmanned flight, including landing in fully automatic mode. ...

The same article writes further

The automated landing took place on a runway at Baikonur Cosmodrome where, despite a lateral wind speed of 61.2 kilometres per hour (38.0 mph), it landed only 3 metres (9.8 ft) laterally and 10 metres (33 ft) longitudinally from the target mark. Specifically, as Buran approached Baikonur Cosmodrome and started landing, spacecraft sensors detected the strong crosswind and "the robotic system sent the huge machine for another rectangular traffic pattern approach, successfully landing the spacecraft on a second try."

The NASA Space Shuttle (I use the term to refer to the assembly family rather than a tail) headed either to the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center (TTS), or multiple runways at Edwards Air Force Base (EDW). In the event it undershot it could splash into the Atlantic. If it overshot, it could splash into the Pacific. A similar argument may be applied to the Buran landing at Baikonur - except that Baikonur is land-locked first...

Apparently the Shuttle landing strip at both places was specially reinforced designed for a high-speed landing. The wikipedia article on the Shuttle Landing Facility (TTS) writes to say

The runway surface consists of an extremely high-friction concrete strip designed to maximize the braking ability of the Space Shuttle at its high landing speed, with a paving thickness of 40.6 cm (16.0 in) at the center. It uses a grooved design to provide drainage, and further increase the coefficient of friction.

I'm unsure about a similar provision being made for the Buran.

Despite all the high-technology precision involved - having an extremely limited set of runways to head for seems contrary.

  • Could the Space Shuttle have landed on any long runway other than those specially prepared at TTS, and EDW?
  • Was/Were any such long runways along it's flight-path similarly prepared for that purpose, and/or designated port-of-refuge for the Space Shuttle?
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    $\begingroup$ I seem to remember that, when necessary, the shuttle was transported as cargo attached to the back of a modified 747. It wasn't all that heavy -- it just had no option for a go-around, and the glide path of a slightly aerodynamic brick. $\endgroup$ – keshlam May 20 '14 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ My apologies. 'Reinforced' was the wrong word to use. It should instead have been a mention of high-speed high coefficient of friction runway with a grooved surface. The question is updated now to reflect this. $\endgroup$ – Everyone May 20 '14 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ Wikipedia also has this list: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_space_shuttle_landing_sites and some of those on the list had been visited in a promotial tour of the shuttle on top of a 747 $\endgroup$ – PlasmaHH May 20 '14 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ I would think any paving sufficiently long enough and wide enough would be sufficient in a pinch, because weight doesn't seem to be an issue: Endeavor was pulled around on a trailer on normal streets without any noticeable damage to the infrastructure. But that's not "landing" the Endeavor... $\endgroup$ – Mikey Jan 8 '15 at 9:49
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    $\begingroup$ I remember seeing at Auckland International here in NZ they had a history of the airport and at some date the runway was extended making it long enough for a shuttle to make an emergency landing. Of course, it never happened, but it could be done. $\endgroup$ – Dylan Cleaver Dec 19 '15 at 7:34

11 Answers 11

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STS-3 landed at White Sands runway 17.

In addition to Kennedy, Edwards, and White Sands, several sites were selected as targets for a transoceanic abort landing (TAL), but no launch ever had to perform such an abort. If something went bad during launch before the vehicle had enough energy to get to a TAL site, a mission might have had to do something even more drastic such as a return to launch site (RTLS) abort or an east coast abort landing (ECAL). Any airport with a long enough runway would do. There were several airports designated as east coast abort landing sites, ranging from Myrtle Beach to airports in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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    $\begingroup$ The ideal answer (TM) would also cite the generic flight rules. ) $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter May 22 '14 at 2:46
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    $\begingroup$ I noticed you had Return To Launch Site as RTS not RTLS, and added some links while I was fixing that. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 16 '16 at 12:47
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The Space Shuttle didn't need a "specially reinforced" runway. If a runway could accept a 747 it could probably handle the shuttle. The shuttle's maximum landing weight is in the range of a large airliner (less than half that of a 747), so load is not a problem. The major issue would probably be length... the shuttle's high landing speed meant it needed a lot of room to stop, so it would have been limited to the longer runways of major airports - which would almost certainly be strong enough.

Probably the biggest issue with landing a shuttle at an alternate airport would be traffic. A high-speed glider on an unscheduled approach, committed to landing on its first try would present some serious air traffic control problems at any major airport. Not to mention the hazardous (flammable/explosive/toxic) chemicals on board. If an airport was specifically "prepared" to be a shuttle alternate, it wouldn't be about physical/structural preparations, it would be about closing it and clearing it of all air traffic and people for a suitable window of time in case the shuttle needed to land there.

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    $\begingroup$ I remember hearing on the news when Pittsburgh built a new airport in the 80's that it was added to the list of emergency landing locations for the shuttle. I'm also not convinced your last point would be a major issue in real life; commercial airports already need to be able to clear the surrounding airspace for an emergency landing, and potentially diverting all incoming flights for an extended period if the landing turns into a crash. $\endgroup$ – Dan Neely May 20 '14 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ Wikipedia lists 75 officially designated emergency landing points (mostly allied military fields), but states that any commercial airport with a 3km runway (ie most of them) could be used in theory. The latter case appears to be what I remembered from childhood. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ – Dan Neely May 20 '14 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting The orbiter has a published maximum landing weight. If the shuttle aborted a launch it would have to land with its full launch payload (no means to jettison). It was designed to accomodate return payloads. So, it stands to reason that it could have to land at significantly more than its empty weight. Nevertheless, it's still only a fraction of the weight of a 747. $\endgroup$ – Anthony X May 21 '14 at 0:27
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    $\begingroup$ Runways appear to be rated according to tire pressures; this makes sense because it is the pressure of individual tires which will stress the runway, not density of the overall footprint (number/spacing of tires). Shuttle tire pressures were apparently higher than most if not any commercial airliner, but still within the rated limits of many major airports. $\endgroup$ – Anthony X Dec 20 '14 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ A shuttle abort landing would be no worse a problem for traffic control than an airliner with multiple engines out, which ATC must be prepared to cope with on extremely short notice. In both cases, there's no going around, and no waiting, you're landing here and now, and everyone just has to get out of the way. Not a fun situation, and not one anyone wants to deal with, but totally within their capability. $\endgroup$ – Leliel Nov 22 '16 at 20:17
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In France, a French Air Force base with a 5 km long runaway is approved for Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) but was never used. The runaway is the longuest one in europe and also used by French Army contractor as a test facility.

Source : Wikipedia and being French

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RAF Fairford was the only TransOceanic Abort Landing site in the UK. It was never used to land a shuttle, though.

As far as I'm aware the American portion of the base is being shutdown, so this runway won't be available in the future.

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    $\begingroup$ Since the Shuttle has been retired, the closure of RAF Fairford would be moot. However, as the Wikipedia page you link to says, Fairford is currently being maintained to the level at which it could be reactivated within 24-48hrs if needed. Also, the American portion of the base is actually the whole thing; it's an RAF base in name only. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby May 20 '14 at 20:10
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Yes, there were several designated landing sites and abort landing sites both inside and outside the USA. Of these, only Kennedy, Edwards and White Sands were ever used (White Sands only once).

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  • $\begingroup$ Does anyone know what the shuttle landing speed was? I presume about 120-140kt. So the only reason it needed a long runway was that it did not have reverse thrusters (at least ground-based thrusters). Is this correct? $\endgroup$ – David DelMonte May 20 '14 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidDelMonte Other answers and comments suggest that one reason for using very long runways was that there was no opportunity for a go-around if the shuttle was going to land farther down the strip than planned. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby May 20 '14 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidDelMonte And the landing speed is easily found by Googling: Wikipedia says "about 213mph", which is 185kts. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby May 20 '14 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ You're right, apologies. Better than Wikipedia though is this one: nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/launch/landing101.html $\endgroup$ – David DelMonte May 20 '14 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ No thrust reversers, but unlike an airliner it does come equipped with a drag chute. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Apr 8 '17 at 15:50
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Shuttles landed on the lakebed runways at Edwards many times, which had no concrete at all, just markings painted on the desert floor.

enter image description here

These runways are separate from the concrete and asphalt runways also located at Edwards (also used by the Shuttles). The dry lakebed is located at the upper left of the 2nd picture.

enter image description here

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Columbia actually landed at White Sands Space Harbor in 1982. See http://www.airfields-freeman.com/NM/WhiteSands_NM_82_Shuttle.jpg for a picture of the landing.

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I was stationed at NAS Keflavik, Iceland in 1994. I remember reading in one of my "welcome aboard" pamphlets that runway 11 was a designated alternate or emergency landing strip for the STS. I vaguely remember something about it being highly unlikely because the STS would have to be in a polar orbit versus an equatorial. I will try to dig through old things to find it.

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    $\begingroup$ if all else fails you could consider asking a new question. If you included the question about the difficulty of an inclination change from 52 to 64 degrees, and the phasing, it would be a very interesting question! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Apr 6 '17 at 1:20
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Because of the needed orbital inclinations, the prime TAL site frequently was a remote site in North Africa.

An interesting footnote is that the landing strip could support an emergency Shuttle Orbiter landing, but it could at the time not support the orbiter's later removal on the back of 747.

If it had ever been used, it was understood in doing so only the crew and payload could be saved and recovered while the orbiter would have been potentially lost.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wow - understood by who? I have a hunch there could have been some debate and discussion had a shuttle actually landed. Would it have been impossible to build a suitably long and clear runway (e.g. mountains), or just really really expensive? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Apr 6 '17 at 1:27
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    $\begingroup$ You must be referring to Banjul airport in The Gambia which was a TAL site for a short while. The facilities were....interesting. On one of the early NASA site visits no one could be found who was willing to climb the met tower and inspect the instruments. And the site report listed that there was a copy machine there, but no way to get paper for it. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jun 1 '18 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble: More than "a short while" - it was the go-to TAL site for 28.5-degree shuttle launches from 1988 (replacing Dakar, which had filled that role up through STS-51L) right up until STS-107 in 2003 (after which there was all of one 28.5-degree launch, for which it was replaced by Ben Guerir in Morocco). $\endgroup$ – Sean Jul 19 at 3:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Sean you could be right, but I don't remember it getting much play in training. My memory is that it was undesirable. Perhaps I'm fooled by the long run of high inclination launches late in the program. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jul 19 at 3:51
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble: Ah, that makes more sense (I thought it was a 28.5-degree mission, for some reason). $\endgroup$ – Sean Jul 19 at 4:07
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The Mataveri Airport on Easter Island was a planned abort site for the Space Shuttle. Since the Space Shuttle has no means of propulsion, you might want to have a fairly tight mesh of potential landing sites in event of an emergency.

As a nice side-effect, the long runway allowed for larger passenger aircraft to service the island, which boosted tourism. A nice win-win situation.

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I know that there were multiple alternate landing sites approved, even relatively minor locations. In particular, I grew up in the small town which hosted Sewart AFB (Smyrna, TN), and a big deal was made about the fact that we were one of the 'emergency landing sites' for the shuttle.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you sure? Sewart AFB closed in 1971, ten years before the first shuttle flew. The site is currently occupied by Smyrna Airport, whose longest runway is only 8,048ft, which is rather short for the shuttle. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby May 20 '14 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, I could totally be mistaken. My anecdote about Sewart is based wholly on hearsay. That being said, I recall something about the airport being refitted to launch\land B2's, and this enabled it to also land the shuttle. I believe the runway was to used in conjunction with non-runway paved surfaces in order to accomplish it, though. $\endgroup$ – enneract May 20 '14 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ That really doesn't seem likely. The B-2 didn't fly until 18 years after Sewart AFB closed and it famously requires huge amounts of specialist support infrastructure. I seriously doubt that the USAF would install that at a civilian airport $\endgroup$ – David Richerby May 20 '14 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ I'm finding your refutations entirely plausible. Additionally, I can't find any solid information supporting what I had heard previously. My working hypothesis is that whomever I heard this from initially had confused Sewart AFB and Stewart ANGB, and since I never questioned it, the information became part of my 'childhood mythology'. $\endgroup$ – enneract May 20 '14 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, it would be very easy to confuse those two! $\endgroup$ – David Richerby May 20 '14 at 21:09

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