Long before America’s high-tech space shuttles were lofting astronauts and cargo into orbit and gliding back to Earth, a decidedly more basic version was forging a lonely path to space. Lovingly handcrafted by engineers from NASA Test Shop 4650, this often overlooked piece of space history was cobbled together from steel beams, spare engine mounts, wood and aluminium. Hand painted in a sparse all-white livery, OV-098 (as it was designated) was a playful hint at things to come; a future icon rendered like a designer kid’s toy.
The story of this forgotten “shuttle” begins in the late 70s in Huntsville, Alabama. With various branches of NASA hard at work on America’s new spaceplane, it fell to engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center to make sure all the little details would work as planned when the real thing arrived. First conceived in the 1960s, the Space Shuttle was an incredibly complex set of technological achievements working together: a reusable orbiter, a massive external fuel tank and two solid rocket boosters for extra thrust, plus the launch tower, cryogenic fuelling system and associated infrastructure. Making it all fit together on the very first attempt was crucial.
The agency had already built a very delicate and very expensive flying testbed Space Shuttle – the Enterprise – but to make sure all various cranes, runway angles and width clearances wouldn’t damage it, engineers at Marshall decided to create a real life, full-sized but much more basic version. So while much of the Space Shuttle’s design and components would be electronic, it would strangely fall to a simple physical object to double check these seemingly simple points. This fusion of physical and digital was a sign of the times: the year was 1977 and in cinemas Star Wars was wowing audiences across America with its cutting-edge combination of handcrafted sets, physical model spaceships and post-production digital effects.
“Nowadays you would use computer modelling to go through all the different lifting scenarios and stacking scenarios and make sure you had plenty of clearance,” explains Ron Tepool, now retired from NASA, but then a test director for the Space Shuttle’s main engines at Marshall. “Back in those days we didn’t have all that. We had the plans and designs and we assumed everything would be alright, but we were on a mission and we needed to be sure.”
To build OV-098, engineers started by taking a spare Titan rocket motor case and some steel I-beams to make a skeleton spacecraft with roughly the same size, shape, weight and centre of gravity as the forthcoming Space Shuttle. This was used in early tests before a nose section, tail structure and wings were added, and finished with aluminium sheeting for the outer skin. Finally, the earthbound orbiter got its sleek white paint job, complete with thin black lines representing its tail rudder and other control surfaces.
Adding to the graphic appeal is a stylish black NASA “worm” logo: the typographical, future-facing masterpiece by New York design firm Danne & Blackburn used between 1975 and 1992. On the wings and fuselage, an oversized Helvetica “USA” and “United States” were paired with an oddly incorrect stars and stripes flag, creating a cult design classic.
In April of 1978, the mockup was sent on a barge to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida to test out systems and facilities like the Mate-Demate Device, the Orbiter Processing Facility and the Vehicle Assembly Building – a monumental structure so big it generates its own miniature weather systems inside. As the dawn of the shuttle era grew nearer, OV-098 was used to train ground crew in post-landing procedures at the Shuttle Landing Facility, before being retired and sent back to Huntsville. At almost exactly 7am on the morning of April 12, 1981, Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from launchpad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, ushering in a new golden age of American space exploration.
In those early days, it seemed access to space was about to become cheaper, easier and more accessible – with teachers, journalists and artists all lined up to fly. Space travel would at long last become routine, launching us into a sci-fi future where living off earth was no big deal. Thanks to OV-098 and Enterprise, the shuttle’s early flights went largely as planned – but when the shuttle Challenger disintegrated 72 seconds after liftoff in 1986, those dreams died along with the seven astronauts on board. And while Columbia would later be lost in a second tragic accident, NASA’s five shuttles would together complete 135 round-trips to space, launching innumerable scientific satellites and making the construction of the International Space Station possible.
Rusting and seemingly forgotten, it looked like OV-098 was destined for the scrapheap – but the handcrafted space shuttle was about to enjoy an illustrious second career. In the early 1980s, the America-Japan Society bought it from NASA for a million dollars and had it refurbished to more closely resemble the real thing. Rechristened Pathfinder, it was shipped to Tokyo to form the centrepiece of the “Great Space Shuttle Exhibition” – which lasted from 1983 to 1984. Now big in Japan, Pathfinder was reacquired by NASA and brought home to Huntsville in 1988, where it remains on display at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center – an overlooked hero from a brief era when the dream of common people living and working in space seemed just around the corner.