The Independence Plaza Experience

Independence Plaza presented by Boeing shares an important trait with other awe-inspiring landmarks like Mount Rushmore. One can’t help but notice the sheer size of it all.

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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.

Guests can take the elevator to the top to first enter the Independence using a timed-ticketing system. The first stop is the flight deck, where guests can see how the astronauts piloted the orbiter during missions. One floor down, guests will see 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.

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Down one more level, guests enter shuttle carrier aircraft NASA 905, 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.

Visitors will enter an exhibit section about designing the shuttle. In addition to information on NASA Johnson Space Center’s role in its development, guests can learn about the development process for the orbiter and touch a shuttle tile to learn how these amazing pieces of ceramic worked. Guests will be able to heat one side of a shuttle tile, yet feel how cool it is on the other side.

Thinking outside the box

Continuing through the aircraft, guests will 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. Guests will see a model Kiker built and flew at Ellington Field to convince his bosses that mounting a shuttle on an aircraft could work.

The third area of the plane will tell the story of how the Boeing 747 was retrofitted to mate with the shuttle. Guests will be able to do their own stress tests to see which materials can best serve to support the weight as designed.

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. Guests can learn how the massive plane flew with the shuttle on its back and even practice mating and detaching the pair in an interactive display.

The next area celebrates all the notable achievements of the Shuttle Program. Guests will see the program “by the numbers,” with all manner of facts about the program’s accomplishments on display. They will see a movie highlighting the program’s innovations before moving into an area that pays respect to the crew members of Challenger and Columbia.

Finally, guests will be able to 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.

Artifact spotlight: satellite rescue

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.

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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.

Independence Plaza mission patch

Every human mission NASA has flown since Gemini V has its own patch, created by the astronauts venturing into space.

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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.