The Mission to Restore the Pathfinder

One of the iconic images at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and Space Camp, the Pathfinder Shuttle Stack showcases the advancement of space exploration during the shuttle era. After years of weathering the elements, the Pathfinder is need of restoration and repair for safety and to restore this test article from the shuttle flight era.

Mission Stats

Pathfinder performed an important role in advancing space flight during the shuttle era. It allowed for facilities testing of an article approximately the same size as an Orbiter to stand in for Enterprise and helped work out procedures for handling and moving a shuttle. The America-Japan Society, Inc., bought the article and hired Teledyne Brown Engineering to configure it to more closely resemble a shuttle for exposition at the Great Space Shuttle Exposition in Tokyo in 1983.

1988

Pathfinder installed at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center

OV-098

is Pathfinder’s construction number

6

test missions flown

71

tons is the Pathfinder's weight

Photo Credit: Lee Bishop

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Here are answers to the questions most visitors have.

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The Pathfinder is a one-of-a-kind testing artifact created to develop procedures for moving and handling the space shuttle orbiters. Also known as Orbital Vehicle-098, the artifact is a steel structure roughly the size, weight and shape of an orbiter. Constructed at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in 1977, the article, later named Pathfinder, was used as a stand-in for the first orbiter, Enterprise (OV-101), to test roads and cranes. It was shipped by barge to Kennedy Space Center to be used for ground crew testing before returning to Marshall Space Flight Center where it was stored for many years.

A group of Japanese businessmen paid to modify the structure to more closely resemble a real orbiter and displayed it from 1983-1984 at an exposition in Tokyo, Japan. After the expo, Pathfinder returned to Huntsville, Alabama, and has been on permanent display at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center since May 1988. It is mounted to the Main Propulsion Test Article (MPTA) External Tank, also an artifact, used for early tanking tests.

The Pathfinder is a reminder that a team with diverse skills and shared passion can achieve big goals, when each participant contributes a portion. You are needed on this team to save an artifact that has inspired millions.

However, you might ask: Isn't the U.S. Space & Rocket Center federally funded? Great question, and the answer is—no. Though a NASA Visitor Center, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center does not receive funding from NASA for operations or repairs. While the Center is a Commission of the State of Alabama, our state funding represents only three percent of our expenses in a typical year. To undertake major preservation projects, assistance from you and others who are inspired like you is necessary.

Recently, we were thrilled to receive a federal Save America’s Treasures $500,000 grant specifically to help us preserve the Pathfinder Shuttle Stack. We invite you to watch the progress and to join us in matching the Save America’s Treasure’s Grant.

The Pathfinder is the test article that paved the way for successful Space Shuttle missions. Working with our online community, a diverse and vast worldwide team of space enthusiasts, helps ensure we can be successful in rescuing this one-of-a-kind artifact.

NASA Marshall Space Flight Center staff are working with U.S. Space & Rocket Center staff to determine the best course of action for what will be a multi-phased project. The artifact assessment is complex because the Pathfinder is mounted on another historic artifact, the first external tank built for the program.

The Pathfinder is a test article that paved the way for successful space shuttle missions. It is a reminder that a team with diverse skills and shared passion can achieve big goals, when each participant contributes a portion. The full shuttle stack, the only one of its kind in the world, is also a Huntsville landmark.

The first phase of the project is budgeted at $1.5 million, which includes removing external pieces off Pathfinder, the space shuttle main engine (SSME) nozzles and the fuselage in order to reveal the artifact. Once this is complete, the Rocket Center will work with NASA's MSFC to test the condition and structural integrity of Pathfinder, allowing for a more robust restoration plan and its cost to be established. The restoration project includes restoring the solid rocket boosters and the external tank.

In August 2020, the Rocket Center was thrilled to receive a federal Save America's Treasures' matching grant of $500,000 to help preserve the Pathfinder shuttle stack. Tim Sheehy, a multi-time Space Camp and Aviation Challenge alumnus and CEO and Founder of Montana-based Bridger Aerospace; Lockheed Martin Corporation; the late Dr. Joyce Neighbors; and The Daniel Foundation of Alabama matched the grant, allowing the project to begin.

Matt Sheehy, Tim's brother and an Aviation Challenge alumnus and president of Tallgrass Energy in Leawood, Kan., has also made a significant donation for the Pathfinder project as well as other Rocket Center restoration efforts. PPG will provide paint for the project.

The final cost of the restoration project is to be determined based on the assessment of the original Pathfinder structure. 

Behind the Scenes

The Pathfinder is a one-of-a-kind test article created to develop procedures for moving and handling the space shuttle orbiters. Also known as Orbital Vehicle-098, the artifact is a steel structure roughly the size, weight, and shape of an orbiter.

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