NASA has decided to land the space shuttle at California's Edwards Air Force Base for at least its next few missions because so many of the shuttle's 17 landings have been tough on its brakes.
NASA officials had hoped to begin bringing the shuttle down at Florida's Kennedy Space Center to save the time and expense of returning it from California. But after the shuttle Discovery suffered major brake damage when it landed on the space center's grooved concrete tarmac April 19, NASA planners decided to return to the desert runways of Edwards, probably for all seven missions left this year.
"Let's face it, these brakes are right at the edge in a vehicle that lands as heavy and as fast as the shuttle does," Astronaut Daniel C. Brandenstein, commander of the next shuttle mission, said. "My guess is we'll be landing for a while out in the Mojave, where there's no end to the runways and there's almost nothing on either side of the runways to worry about either."
Commander Karol J. Bobko had to land Discovery in a crosswind at Kennedy with a tailwind that pushed his speed at touchdown up to 231 miles an hour. The result: two locked brake assemblies, one blown-out tire and three tires on the main landing gear with shredded rubber. The entire landing gear assembly had to be replaced before the shuttle could be towed off the runway.
Studies now suggest that the shuttle nose gear may have to be rebuilt to provide better steering when the shuttle has to land in a crosswind, a situation that is more likely to occur at Kennedy than at Edwards. The cost could run as high as $3 million for each of the four spaceliners.