When NASA first began designing space shuttles in the 1970s, it was faced with the problem of how to get the shuttle back to its launch site at the Kennedy Space Center if the shuttle had to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere far from the space center. After several unlikely suggestions were proposed, the late John Kiker, an Anson County native, suggested the idea of piggybacking the orbiter on a modified Boeing 747, which was tested with the shuttle Enterprise at Edwards Air Force Base in California in October 1977, according to NASA.
This idea was estimated to be $19 million cheaper than putting the shuttle orbiter on an ocean-going vessel, which proved to be true in March of 1982 when the site where the shuttle Columbia was supposed to land was rained out and it had to land in New Mexico instead, according to NASA.
Kiker passed away in 2005, but his work spanned decades, saving NASA money and enabling shuttles to piggyback on modified 747s until NASA retired the space shuttle program. He’s listed on NASA’s website as an innovator and unsung hero. “Today the image of the space shuttle riding piggyback on one of NASA’s two shuttle carrier aircraft is a well-recognized part of the program’s history,” Craig Collins wrote on NASA’s biography of Kiker. “Kiker, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 79, would probably get a kick out of the instruction printed on the rear mounting point on one of the aircraft: ‘Attach Orbiter Here. Note: Black Side Down’.”
NASA retired its 30-year space shuttle program in 2011 when the shuttle Atlantis made its way home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Endeavor just finished its farewell flight — piggybacked on a modified 747 — performing an aerial show for the crowds gathered before being moved into a United Airlines hangar to await housing at the California Science Center.
Today, a display about Kiker’s life and work is housed at the Rotary Planetarium and Science Center, located at 320 Camden Road in Wadesboro. For information on the planetarium, call 704-694-7016.