Independence Plaza presented by Boeing is an international landmark, offering an experience like nothing else in the world. Visitors can enter the shuttle replica Independence, mounted on top of the historic and original NASA 905 shuttle carrier aircraft, and then explore the giant plane. It is the only shuttle mounted on an SCA that the public can go inside.
Independence Plaza fun facts
- NASA 905 carried space shuttles 223 times and amassed 11,017 flight hours over 42 years. It is the first of two shuttle carrier aircrafts.
- This SCA is the largest intact artifact from the shuttle program and played key roles in the orbiter’s development.
- Although the main landing gear beam was cut for transportation to our center, the reassembled 747 structure is flight certifiable.
Multiple exhibits grant a rare glimpse into the historic shuttle era and describe its impact on current and future exploration.
Independence Plaza shares an important trait with other awe-inspiring landmarks like Mount Rushmore. One can’t help but notice the sheer size of it all.
Fitting Space Center Houston’s educationally focused mission, the exhibits explore problem-solving concepts; possible career paths in science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and examples of innovation from the shuttle era.
The one-of-a-kind experience is offered at no extra charge as part of the general admission ticket.
Driving up to Space Center Houston, guests immediately see the 240-ton complex standing beside the center. This foundation supports the 159-ton shuttle carrier aircraft NASA 905, the 80-ton shuttle replica Independence and a six-story tower that are used to enter both vehicles, as well as the exhibits inside NASA 905.
Shuttle replica Independence
Begin your journey through the shuttle era by taking the elevator to the top of Independence Plaza to explore the shuttle replica Independence. The first stop is the flight deck, where you will see how the astronauts piloted the orbiter during missions.
One floor down, experience how cramped living conditions were on the mid-deck and walk out into the payload bay to see an actual flown artifact from STS-49, a satellite rescue mission in which three people from the same spacecraft walked in space at the same time.
Satellites have captured the imagination of popular culture ever since Sputnik beeped its way across the sky. At times, they have popped a house full of popcorn in the movie Real Genius; inspired the visual motifs of ‘60s-era diners, motels and gas stations; and menaced the entire planet in many James Bond films.
Satellites also have made our digital age possible, along with a helping hand or two from the Space Shuttle Program. Never was that more apparent than on mission STS-49, the maiden flight of shuttle orbiter Endeavour.
During this nine-day mission, NASA astronauts retrieved an Intelsat VI satellite that had failed to reach its intended orbit. Intelsat is a communications satellite provider founded in 1964 that operates one of the world’s largest fleets of commercial satellites. The VI satellite Intelsat 603 was built by Hughes Aircraft Company and launched in 1990.
During that launch, the upper stage failed to separate from the satellite, leaving the two attached. That meant the perigee kick motor, used to boost the satellite to its proper orbit, could not fire.
Enter STS-49, whose astronaut team went on a record-breaking spacewalk to track down the satellite, attach a new upper stage booster and place it to its proper geosynchronous orbit. Mission specialists Richard Hieb, Thomas Akers and Pierre Thuot spent more than eight hours capturing the wayward satellite and attaching the booster May 13-14, 1992.
It was the first time three astronauts had been on an extra-vehicular activity (EVA) together and stood as the longest duration EVA until STS-102 crewmembers broke it in 2001.
You can see an artifact of this mission up close inside shuttle replica Independence’s payload bay in Independence Plaza. There sits the cradle that carried the booster motor for STS-49’s mission.
It’s one of many artifacts flown in space that you can experience at Space Center Houston, where the thrilling future and inspiring past of space exploration comes alive.
When astronauts exit a spacecraft to do a spacewalk, it's technically called an EVA. EVA stands for extravehicular activity. Astronauts on a spacewalk wear a spacesuit like this one, technically called an Extravehicular Maneuvering Unit (EMU).
During the Space Shuttle Program, astronauts performed spacewalks to repair satellites, test equipment, conduct experiments, and assemble the International Space Station.
EMUs are made in various sizes that are adjusted for each astronaut. The right fit is important because spacewalks can last up to eight hours and can be physically tiring.
This EMU spacesuit is different than the one displayed in Astronaut Gallery in that it includes the Portable Life Support System (PLSS), a lighting and camera system, and a work station.
Some of the parts on this EMU are back-up and training elements (hard upper torso, gloves), while others are mock-ups used in testing and training (lighting and camera system).
Shuttle Carrier Aircraft NASA 905
After exploring the shuttle replica, go inside the historic shuttle carrier aircraft NASA 905. NASA 905 is the largest artifact from the Space Shuttle Program on display.
This level gives guests a glimpse into the exciting history of the shuttle program and how innovative the bright minds working on it had to be to overcome the myriad challenges it presented.
Discover the shuttle era through one-of-a-kind artifacts, hands-on interactives, colorful graphic displays and more.
SCA RC model
See the dilemma faced by engineers from this new shuttle, which couldn’t fly under its own power. How did the orbiter travel on earth? Thanks to some out-of-the-box thinking by men like John Kiker, the shuttle carrier aircraft program was born. See a model Kiker built and flew at Ellington Field to convince his bosses that mounting a shuttle on an aircraft could work.
The SCA remote control (RC) model on display is one of the actual remote control models used in preparation for the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT). NASA 905’s first shuttle missions were the 1977 ALT designed to learn more about the landing characteristics of the Orbiter and how the mated shuttle and its 747 carrier operated together.
Learn about the development process for the orbiter and touch a shuttle tile to learn how these amazing pieces of ceramic worked. Heat one side of a shuttle tile, yet feel how cool it is on the other side.
Discover the story of how the Boeing 747 was retrofitted to mate with the shuttle. Do your own stress tests to see which materials can best serve to support the weight as designed.
Mate and demate
The next area of the exhibit follows the retrofitting into flight tests. On Aug. 12, 1977, the shuttle made its first free flight from a ferry flight with NASA 905. Learn how the massive plane flew with the shuttle on its back and even practice mating and detaching the pair in an interactive display.
In the tale end of the plane, Learn more about the great history of innovation and creative thinking that went into the development of the shuttle and shuttle carrier aircraft. That spirit of innovation is alive and well at NASA Johnson Space Center today, where guests can learn about the many careers and disciplines at work there.
Orbiter Access Arm
This is the actual gantry arm from Kennedy space center launch pad 39B.
It was removed in 2009 as that complex was cleared of its towers to support NASA's future Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket.
The end of the access arm features an environmentally clean room ("white room") that mated with the shuttle orbiter and holds six people. The arm remained in the extended position until seven minutes, 24 seconds before launch to serve as an emergency escape route for the flight crew—that’s why the arrows point away from the direction of the orbiter.
It can be mechanically or manually repositioned in about 15 seconds in the event of an emergency.
Independence Plaza mission patch
Every human mission NASA has flown since Gemini V has its own patch, created by the astronauts venturing into space.
Independence Plaza also has a unique mission patch and logo. The design reflects the remarkable ingenuity and achievement of the Space Shuttle Program and the innovators who conceived of the plan to ferry shuttles on the back of a 747.
The logo has a patriotic flair, with a flag behind NASA 905 and the shuttle replica Independence. On that flag are five grouped stars to denote the orbiters that flew into space and one single star to represent Enterprise, the orbiter that proved our Boeing 747 could carry a shuttle.
Building an international landmark exhibit
Creating Independence Plaza was a feat of engineering in itself. Explore our photo gallery chronicling the creation of the international landmark Independence Plaza as well as the journey of historic NASA 905 and shuttle replica Independence to Space Center Houston.
Shortly after the last shuttle mission landed in 2011, Space Center Houston acquired a 25-year-old high-fidelity shuttle replica. The science and space learning center was honored to display this reminder of the Space Shuttle Program.
Getting the shuttle replica from Florida to Houston was a mammoth undertaking, and the shuttle replica needed extensive renovations to be displayed.
A week before the new shuttle exhibit broke ground, Space Center Houston received a mate for its shuttle replica – the original and historic shuttle carrier aircraft NASA 905. Boeing engineers had never disassembled one if their jets outside a hangar. It took 40 days to take NASA 905 apart at Ellington Field.
Moving the massive vehicles was an even more immense task. In moving the shuttle, one power line had to be moved. In moving the SCA, 110 power lines were moved.
The project’s challenges didn’t end there.
The original plan was to nestle the shuttle and SCA side by side. Could they be mounted permanently in the historic mated position? Innovation and ingenuity scaled all obstacles, creating a unique, exciting experience for guests.
Inside the eight-story, 5,500-square-foot structure, two elevators and a stairway provide efficient and ADA-compliant access to all levels of the aircraft, including the flight deck and mid-deck of the shuttle, as well as the 747 shuttle carrier aircraft. Open-air vestibules allow visitors to assemble as they wait to board each aircraft.
The plane now is a building. But, it doesn’t act like one. The afternoon sun heats the metal side, causing the front landing gear to move. Buildings typically don’t move. Summer in Texas is hot. The center found an innovative way to air condition the plane without changing the infrastructure of this huge artifact and providing visitors an authentic experience.
The shuttle interior was completely renovated. It was opened and enlarged to allow guests to experience all areas. Visitors can appreciate the cramped space astronauts shared for up to two weeks at a time. Inside the plane, guests see, touch and hear the story of the historic plane, NASA 905, from its life as a commercial airliner, through modifications and its ferrying missions. Interactive exhibits show guests the physics behind this impressive, improbable pairing.
Shuttle Carrier Aircraft:
- Length: 231 feet, 4 inches (70.5 meters)
- Wingspan: 195 feet 8 inches (59.7 meters)
- Height: 63 feet 5 inches (19.3 meters)
- Empty weight: 318,000 pounds (144,200 kg)
- Length: 122 feet (37.2 meters)
- Wingspan: 78 feet (23.7 meters)
- Height: 57 feet (17.3 meters)
- Weight: 171,000 pounds (77,500 kilograms)