The recent delivery of the Space Shuttle "Discovery" to the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air & Space Museum, located at Washington's Dulles Airport, caused me to ponder how many of you intrepid air travelers have ever traveled on the Shuttle Carrier aircraft, N905NA. If you've ridden it in its present configuration, with or without a Space Shuttle on top, I'm truly impressed! I suspect that there will be very few positive answers to my question, in this regard, but I wouldn't be surprised if more than one reader will be able to answer affirmatively if we include its previous registration, N9668.
This 747-123 (the 'dash' number indicating that this was a 747-100, via the initial digit "1", with the "23" providing the information that it was built for American Airlines), line number 86, was originally delivered to American Airlines, on October 29, 1970, and, of course, was one of the early 747s easily recognizable by the presence of only three windows on each side of the upper deck. Even some later -100s had multiple closely-spaced windows on both sides of the upper deck, but the early aircraft did not. Some were later retrofitted with this feature, but a good look at the aircraft during the festivities associated with its arrival at Dulles on April 17 confirmed that it is down to only a pair of upper-deck windows, thus maintaining visual evidence of its seniority.
American, in the euphoria of the late 1960s, ordered 18 747s, believing, like many other airlines then, that booming traffic in the 1970s would create a mass market for air travel, and thus require behemoths of the 747's size to accommodate all the happy travelers. To put this in perspective, at the time of American's initial order, the airline didn't venture further beyond the Continental (48-state) U.S. than Mexico (Mexico City and Acapulco) and Canada (Toronto). A route to Australia was launched in 1970 -- after American had begun domestic 747 service-- although its relatively modest traffic didn't require the seating capacity of a 747 (and AA would exit this route in early 1974).
For that matter, the Caribbean routes, in particular New York-San Juan, which would become a mainstay use for the 747 at American, wouldn't occur until 1971, via the acquisition of Trans Caribbean Airlines. Thus, American, like the other domestically-focused airlines that had early 747s, including Delta and National (Braniff, Continental and United had the ability to utilize the type to Hawaii), soon needed to face the fact that the Seven-Four was not a particularly good fit with the U.S. domestic market, particularly after the downturn that followed the "Oil Crisis" of 1973-74. AA converted some of its fleet to freighters, and sold others. N9668 fell into the latter category, and was acquired by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on July 18, 1974.
Two years later, in 1976, the aircraft was modified extensively, including removal of its interior (wonder whether the famous piano bar lounge made it to NASA!). Externally, supports for carrying the Space Shuttle Orbiter, as well as supplementary (and visually distinctive) vertical stabilizers on the ends of the horizontal tail were installed. While originally retaining its patriotic red-white-and-blue stripes from its days in American's fleet, as well as the natural-metal finish favored by the carrier, NASA eventually repainted it into a largely white paint scheme, although I suspect that I'm not the only one that thinks that the narrow blue cheat line around the windows conjures up the image of Pan Am.
NASA would eventually acquire another 747-100, this one an SR (short-range) model from Japan Air Lines that had been used in Japanese domestic service. That aircraft, N911NA, was retired earlier this year, and one suspects that there will be little use for '905' after it finishes its duties of ferrying retired Shuttles to new homes in museums. All in all, however, it's had a long career for a 1970 graduate. From the perspective of its delivery, a forty-two year service life would have been almost unimaginable; looking backwards then would have required considering the year 1930, when AA predecessor American Airways was formed. It would be another three years before the Curtiss Condor biplane was added to the fleet, to underscore the differences in equipment size and performance.
Sadly, a check of my own logs indicates that I only ever rode on one American 747, a JFK-San Juan round trip in 1976, on N9664 in both directions -- although on different days. And I definitely haven't set foot in N905NA, much less had the pleasure of flying in this unique, and exotic, aircraft.