Another New Category
The Columbia shuttle was a unique vehicle in many ways, even by NASA’s standards. The shuttle was built to exit the atmosphere upright like a rocket, but re-enter the atmosphere horizontally, like an airplane. The key difference and biggest challenge was the landing. All preceding NASA vehicles had landed in the ocean, where the landing’s downward force and heat was absorbed by water, and returning crews and equipment were recovered by boat. This shuttle had to land on a runway, so its heat and downward force would have to be absorbed by itself. No small feat.
The onus of this challenge fell mostly on the shuttle’s landing gear, which had to be designed to survive the punishing temperature swings of a trip to space (as low as -60℉ and as high as +2,500℉), and then withstand the intense levels of force involved with a shuttle-scale return. These environmental conditions were way outside industry norms.
So, they turned to the tire manufacturer that was already skirting the norm.
The period leading up to the first shuttle mission saw several revolutions in car and truck tire technology come out of the U.S., each focused on building tires that perform in demanding conditions. In 1976, BFGoodrich Tires introduced the world’s first all-terrain tire, creating a whole new category. In 1980, they did it again, introducing the world’s first mud-terrain tire. Both categories enabled drivers to explore with confidence on and off pavement. Their technology and their spirit for enabling the world’s explorers made them an ideal match for the demanding and inspiring NASA shuttle program.
BFGoodrich Tires and BFGoodrich-owned Cleveland Pneumatics developed the landing gear for NASA as a package. They began work in 1972 and went through two major design iterations before taking flight in 1981. Coming in at a whopping 34-ply rating, the second-generation tire’s task was to provide more payload ability, more crosswind reduction, more shock absorption, and more runway traction. A sky-high order.
According to STS-1 pilot Bob Crippen, all the shuttle’s systems, including the first tires to orbit Earth, “exceeded all expectations.”