Space & Rocket Center Launches Shuttle Restoration Project

Some three decades of Huntsville weather have taken its toll on a Rocket City landmark.

The Pathfinder space shuttle is facing a multi-year, multi-million dollar restoration at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

Work is underway on the $1.5 million first phase of the project, which begins with removing the Pathfinder orbiter from atop the external fuel tank. Once the orbiter is on the ground, the Rocket Center will work with NASA to evaluate its original metal frame to determine the damage and cost for restoration.

Originally a top priority for 2020, the Rocket Center put the Pathfinder project on hold due to the severe financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic and reduced attendance at the museum and Space Camp.

In August, however, the Rocket Center received a Save America’s Treasures grant for $500,000 from the National Park Service. Subsequent donations from Tim Sheehy, a multi-time Space Camp and Aviation Challenge alumnus and CEO and Founder of Montana-based Bridger Aerospace; Lockheed Martin; the late Dr. Joyce Neighbors; The Daniel Foundation of Alabama; and PPG Industries matched the grant, allowing the project to begin.

Matt Sheehy, Tim’s brother and a Space Camp 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.

“We were honored to receive the Save America’s Treasures grant to help us restore the Pathfinder Space shuttle, a beloved exhibit at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and a critical piece of hardware in the American space program,” said Rocket Center Executive Director/CEO Louie Ramirez. “We are grateful for the support of community partners and the Sheehy family for their help in getting us started on this important project.

“We look forward to working with our USSRC Education Foundation to raise additional funds to continue the work of restoring this important artifact in the future.”

The Pathfinder shuttle stack was erected in 1988, and is the only full-stack shuttle exhibit in the world. The property of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Pathfinder was originally used as a heavy-lift article to test handling, transportation and other procedures for the shuttle program. Pathfinder is a name NASA gives to articles used to test infrastructure and logistics for its programs.

In the early 1980s, a group of Japanese businessmen paid to modify the structure with plywood and fiberglass to more closely resemble a real orbiter and displayed it from 1983 to 1984 at an exposition in Tokyo. After the expo, Pathfinder returned to Huntsville and was mounted for the display seen today.

The Pathfinder shuttle stack consists of:

  • Orbiter
  • External tank
  • Two prototype solid rocket boosters
  • Three space shuttle main engines, including one flown on STS-1, the first shuttle fight. The other two were engineering development engines.

The Rocket Center has contracted with the Signature Renovations office in Loretto, Tenn., to manage the first phase of the restoration. The second phase will be determined by what is learned in the evaluation stage.

To donate to the Pathfinder Restoration Project, visit rocketcenterfoundation.org.