For nearly my entire life, the NASA Space Shuttle has been taking to the heavens, pulling we mere mortals from the face of this planet to the reaches of a space that we’ve just begun to scratch at. Of course, shedding off our gravitational coil is not without its risks and we have lost a couple of the shuttles over the years. One might think that strapping yourself on to a massive liquid hydrogen-fueled rocket is a pretty risky proposition, but those diligent eggheads have gone to amazing lengths to make sure that as many possibilities are taken care of in the event of a MIDS (Moment of Incredible Deep Shit) overtaking the shuttle launch.
I happened to be browsing through the Wikipedia page for N’Djili Airport in Congo DRC when this one sentence stuck out at me, “It is an alternative landing site for NASA’s Space Shuttle.” Huh? I mean, sure, they’ve got a runway and it pretty much works, but this is a rather sordid airport. In fact, after passing through it, I felt compelled to write a survival guide, despite the fact I was seeing it at a vastly improved state than just a few years ago. But still, in the event of a MIDS with the shuttle, they would land it there? This required more research.
As it turns out, there are a number of locations in Sub-Saharan Africa that are on the list of potential emergency landing spots in addition to N’Djili including: Banjul, The Gambia, AFB Hoedspruit, South Africa, and Roberts International Airport, Liberia. It should be noted that out of these, only Banjul is designated as a true emergency landing site. The other three are just there for when things go seriously, seriously bad and they essentially have no option short of breaking apart. Why is Banjul so optimal given that it’s in a country only 40km wide and 250km long? Well, this is explained:
Since September 1987 [following the Challenger crash], Banjul International Airport (BIA) has been among four selected locations in the world designated as augmented emergency landing sites and recovery locations for the United States Space Shuttle. B1A is adjacent to the capital, 13 degrees north of the Equator, on a flat plane, seven miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. NASA space shuttles, launched eastward in a ballistic trajectory over the Atlantic, fly directly over Banjul, thus making it an ideal location for emergency landings. In addition, The Gambia’s dry season from November to May provides favourable weather conditions, with generally good visibility for emergency landings.
A best case scenario in an emergency means landing in Banjul. For a slightly worse case and the reason that one of the other three sites would be a Transoceanic Abort Landing. This is a landing attempted in the first 30 minutes after lift off. I still don’t even know how they would pull that off given the wicked velocity they’re traveling to escape gravity.
In you might be wondering how on earth they would secure a space shuttle if it were to land at one of these sites, well NASA has again though of that as least in the case of Banjul:
During the week preceding a shuttle launch, a team of NASA mission-support specialists and medical personnel from the United States Department of Defence arrives in Banjul to activate the TAL site. They work closely with BIA’s twenty specially trained security officers, and with the Gambian Fire and Rescue Service, which remains fully operational during this period.
Of course, if the shuttle makes it back down, then again, they have a very nifty way to get it back to Florida which is this puppy. While a shuttle tacked on to the back of a 747 isn’t the most attractive or graceful of things, I do have to admire the simplistic approach they took to getting it home in that hey, these two things fly, stick ’em together and fly ’em. And if you’re thinking that your last plane ticket was pricey, try spending $1.7 million to just truck that thing back across the US. I can’t even imagine what it would cost from another country.