Orbiter Processing Facilities and High-Tech Shuttle Garages

If home is where the heart is, then the heart and soul of NASA's space shuttle fleet reside in three custom-built, 29,000 square foot buildings at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They're formally called orbiter processing facilities, but routinely go by the names OPFs, bays, or hangars, and inside highly experienced technicians perform two-thirds of the work to prepare a shuttle for space.

The bays may be the highest-tech garages on the planet, where workers ready a spaceship for flight without scuffing it and huge cranes move tons of cargo into place. But it's also a place where staples are prohibited from the paperwork technicians work off of so the little pieces of metal don't accidentally become embedded in the shuttle's critical systems.

Fresh off Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility and back from a mission, shuttles are towed to their individual processing bays. In recent years, OPF-1 and OPF-2, which are connected by a 233-foot-long low bay, have been the residence of Atlantis and Endeavour, respectively. Across the street is OPF-3, the home base of Discovery. Once inside, technicians jack-and-level the shuttle to maintenance height where platforms and a main access bridge surround the spacecraft like a glove.

"Each high bay has a footprint of the orbiter, and when it rolls in, it has to fit to that footprint," said Wayne Bingham, a United Space Alliance, or USA, flow manager. "We try to keep the platforms within a maximum distance of 6 to 8 inches, but a minimum of 4 inches."

Bingham began working at Kennedy in the late 1970s to prepare shuttle Columbia for its first flight, STS-1, and said the day-to-day operations in an OPF are like working in a garage.

During the first couple of days after a shuttle returns from a spaceflight, technicians remove hazardous chemicals like fuel, dry the engines and open the door panels to gain access. Then, they remove the previous mission's payload. Next, it's on to about three month's worth of work to check the heat shield tiles, swap out the space shuttle main engines, or SSMEs, and assess the vehicle's structural, mechanical and electrical integrity.

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