Pathfinder and the MPTA-ET – Huntsville, Alabama - Atlas Obscura
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Huntsville, Alabama

Pathfinder and the MPTA-ET

It may look like no more than a full-scale model, but every part of this full Space Shuttle stack had a working role in aviation history.  

While most visitors to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center think Pathfinder is just a full-scale recreation of a Space Shuttle stack, everything on this display is actually a real artifact of aviation history.

Pathfinder is one of three official Orbiter Vehicle test articles. Unofficially labeled as OV-098, it was built in 1977 by NASA and was at the time unnamed.

Made as a full-scale simulator of the shuttle (it was about the same weight, size, and shape of an actual Orbiter vehicle), Pathfinder was used for ground testing in the place of the much more expensive—also also quite delicate—Space Shuttle Enterprise. As a result, Pathfinder was used for a whole range of testing purposes like making sure the machinery could fit within the appropriate structures and checking roadway clearances and crane capabilities.

However, all this testing only lasted for so long, and the then-unnamed vehicle sat in storage for quite some time before the America-Japan Society bought it for $1 million. The organization then made it look more like the other Orbiters and also named it Pathfinder. From 1983 to 1984, Pathfinder remained on display at the “Great Space Shuttle Exposition” in Tokyo, Japan. After the exhibit concluded, Pathfinder headed back home to the United States, where the U.S. Space and Rocket Center both designed and built the display where it stands today.

Pathfinder is displayed with the Main Propulsion Test Article External Tank (MPTA-ET), the large orange tank currently attached to it. Though it never made it to space, the MPTA-ET was the first of these iconic orange tanks ever produced. Attached to the MPTA-ET are two Shuttle Rocket Booster (SRB) casings, which had previously been prepared to launch polar-orbit missions from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is one of only four places to view SRB’s.

Know Before You Go

While it is technically viewable for free behind a fence at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, in order to get up close or under the vehicle, you will have to pay standard admission or be a part of Space Camp. While it shouldn't be difficult to find, it is found outside in front of the Astro Trek building (entrance into the Astro Trek building is prohibited without permission).

Photo Disclaimer: The photos taken at sunset were taken with a security pass at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, and would not have been possible for other public visitors at the time of day they were taken.