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Here's What a Space Shuttle Tire Looks Like After a Hard Landing, It's Pretty Brutal
All tires are built more or less the same, right? They're just hunks of rubber formed into the shape of a circle and slapped on a set of wheels, or so you would think. But as petrolheads all know, the right tire can make or break a sports car. As it happens, they're just as important on re-useable space planes.

Here's What a Space Shuttle Tire Looks Like After a Hard Landing, It's Pretty Brutal

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Though overshadowed in the public eye by all the other beep boops and pieces of cool equipment, Space Shuttle tires were important technological marvels. We can see that just by looking at what one looks like after a genuine space mission. There are a few places across the country where you can find Space Shuttle tires on display. But perhaps only the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York, allows its guests to get right up close to one or even touch it.

"The Cradle," as it's often shortened, is a museum dedicated to the lifetime achievements in aerospace attributed to New York State's Long Island region. Several Long Island-based engineers, mostly through Grumman Aerospace, contributed heavily to the development of the Space Shuttle program from the late 1970s through the company's merger into Northrop Grumman in the mid-1990s.

So then, the addition of a genuine piece of Space Shuttle hardware is more fitting than one might first think. In any case, what exactly makes Space Shuttle tires so spectacular apart from the vehicle it's attached to? Well, on the face of it, it sure does look small compared to the massive 151,000 lb (68,500 kg) vehicle sitting on top of it. In truth, it's not all that much bigger than a tire you might find on the average lifted full-size pickup truck.

That said, you'll no doubt notice there's a fair bit less tread on a shuttle tire than the average A/T off-roading truck tire. If anything, it looks more like a racing slick. This is a very deliberate design choice, as extra tread can add to the gross weight of a vehicle where every ounce, every kilogram, and every scrap of excess weight needs to be eliminated. Every Space Shuttle's main four landing gear tires measures 44.5x16 inches (113x40 cm) and 34-ply, while its two nose gear tires measure tires 32x8.8 inches (83,3x22,3 cm) with 20-ply.

Because technology from space travel so often trickles down into the automotive sector, the Shuttle's nitrogen-filled tire system is very similar to the ones found on high-end sports cars like the R35 Nissan GTR, which also came from the factory with nitrogen-filled tires. According to NASA, the Suttle's bias-ply tires were filled to 340 psi (23.1 atm) on the main landing gear and 300 psi (20.4 atm) on the nose gear. Though it must be said, the speeds a Shuttle on landing can find itself at trounces a stock GTR.

On the final approach to the runway at the Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Space Shuttle is liable to touch down at speeds ranging anywhere from 220 mph (354.05 KPH) all the way up to 260 (418.4 KPH). Keep in mind that's after decelerating from orbital velocity via re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. In that time, a change in temperature exceeding -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 C) in space to 130 or more degrees (54.4 C) on landing.

After all of this, each tire is expected to absorb the impact of touchdown in this massive machine while the pilot slams on the brakes. All while traveling at approximately the top speed of a Bugatti Veyron down to zero before the end of the runway. No pressure. It's not like they don't have 15,000 feet (4,572 m) of tarmac to work with. Still, it's not like any of us would volunteer to be behind the stick in that situation. NASA astronauts are no doubt made of stronger stuff than any of us are.

Though this particular tire here at the Cradle was manufactured by BF Goodrich, NASA signed an exclusive deal with Michellin back in the early 90s that saw them supply all future stock for the program. From such a close vantage point, you can see up close and personal just how the forces of a Shuttle landing take their toll on these special tires.

You can very easily see just how much of the rubber compound was stripped away as the Shuttle made its touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center just by observing its top section. Here, the exterior rubber compound is reduced nearly all the way to the tire's middle layers. It's anyone's guess how the Shuttle didn't have a blowout similar to something you'd see at the Daytona 500, only much larger, if you ask us. It just goes to prove that aerospace engineers are smarter than just about anyone else.

 
 
 
 
 

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