The Space Shuttle At Stansted Airport

I have recently been scanning some of my old negatives from the early 1980s. The Lord Mayor’s Show post from a couple of weeks ago included some of these photos, and this week’s post covers a rather more unusual event when in 1983 the Space Shuttle Enterprise landed at Stansted Airport – or London Stansted Airport to use the current full name and provide the hopefully not too tenuous link to the theme of the blog.

The first orbital flight of the Space Shuttle took place in April 1981 and in 1983 the Space Shuttle fleet was increasing the number of flights with four taking place that year. There was considerable interest in this new method of reaching space and in 1983 the Space Shuttle Enterprise made a visit to the Paris Airshow, also landing in the UK and Germany.

The Enterprise did not launch to space. It was the first of the Space Shuttles (named after the space ship from the Star Trek TV series), completed in 1977 and used to test the piggy back method of transport on a Boeing 747 and also for drop tests to evaluate how the design would fly and land.

The Enterprise arrived at Stansted Airport on Sunday 5th June 1983. Stansted was then a small airport with relatively few flights. Approval was granted the following year for the first phase of the significant developments that have seen the airport reach the capacity it has today, so back in 1983 it was still quiet and an ideal location to host the Space Shuttle’s visit.

The arrival was a major event with significant numbers of people turning up to try and see this unusual combination of aircraft land. There was major congestion on the majority of roads in the Stansted area. For some reason I cannot remember now, I could not get to Stansted for the Sunday, but did manage to visit on one of the evenings the following week.

I was working in Lambeth at the time so it was a dash up to Stansted after work on a lovely sunny evening which I do remember very well. It seemed a very casual event. Compared to today, hardly any security of any sort.

Drive up to the airfield, park on the grass and take a walk around – I doubt this would happen today.

I cannot remember which day it was, or the time but it must have been late evening judging by the length of the shadows (which is rather depressing to write on a dark December evening).

There is a BBC report on the Space Shuttle visit and the 25th anniversary which can be found here. The report contains some excellent film of the landing of the Shuttle / 747 combination at Stansted.

A sample of my photos from that June evening in 1983:









I did not get to see the Space Shuttle leave Stansted, but did catch a glimpse of the flight over London, although unfortunately I did not have my camera with me.

After the visit to the UK, France and Germany the Space Shuttle Enterprise returned to the US where it was used for test purposes, then a period in storage and then on display with the Smithsonian Institute.

Space Shuttle Enterprise is now on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York along with a British Airways Concorde – another form of flight which seemed technologically very advanced at the time, having started the first supersonic passenger flights just a few years earlier in 1976 and in some respects would go on to have a parallel history to the Space Shuttle.

8 thoughts on “The Space Shuttle At Stansted Airport

  1. Annie G

    Impossible to imagine the public being allowed anywhere near these days. I rather like the ad hoc feeling of this – as if people have just pottered along to pass a lovely evening.

  2. Mike Paterson

    Marvellous. I remember this well. It did a fly-past of LHR too. Air traffic control joined it to the flight path and it did a low pass near where I worked back then. I’m fairly sure it was on the weekend. I didn’t have my camera either. Some time later, in 1998, I took a trip to Florida to witness Discovery launch with John Glenn on board. An amazing experience: film doesn’t come close to capturing the awesome power and majesty of it all. Or speed, especially speed.

    Shocking to think that between this and Concorde, USA can no longer deliver her own astronauts to the space station and civilians can no longer travel supersonic. We’ll be living in yurts before long.

  3. rosni3

    I really enjoyed this post and the pictures of the shuttle piggybacking on the 747, even though I don’t remember its visit here at all.

  4. Matt

    Thanks for sharing these. As a twelve year old I was playing tennis in a park in my home town of Watford. I looked up and saw that remarkable sight flying over…

  5. Sara Allen

    I am amongst these spectators somewhere as a nine year old , I remember this day so well at Stansted Airport , staring up at the skies watching for a glimpse of the shuttle to come into view, the atmosphere was amazing.

  6. Louise Martin-stephenson

    I just searched to find pictures of this I remember watching it near Windsor Great Park aged 8 on its lowered Heathrow flightpath

  7. Elaine

    I remember this well. I was working in London at the time and would just head into the centre one day over the weekend. On this weekend I went in on the Sunday. I had heard that the space shuttle would be making its way along the Thames before heading for Paris. The chances of actually happening to look up whilst it was going overhead were around zero. When I was around Horseguards Parade, I discovered that there was a rehearsal going on for Beating Retreat and that members of the public could sit on the scaffold stand to watch. I joined the crowd and we enjoyed the troops going through their steps. Some of them were dressed in historical uniforms. All of a sudden, the music stopped and, without anyone saying a word, we all looked up to the sky above and there we saw the space shuttle being carried by a jumbo jet. I did take a couple of photos but they weren’t particularly good due to the rather dull sky and the skill – or rather not – of the photographer!


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