Cape Canaveral, Fla. — A shuttle landing requires a lot more than rolling out the red carpet and greeting the astronauts. At the Kennedy Space Center, 250 people and a convoy of 25 trucks and trailers were standing by. They had been working since before the launch on preparations for the landing, which was diverted to Edwards Air Force Base in California.
The convoy, with fire trucks and ambulances as well as nonemergency equipment , was mustered upwind from the landing site.
One hour and 40 minutes before the landing, 27 members of the recovery team were to don butyl rubber protective suits and liquid air breathing tanks.
If the orbiter landed at Kennedy, some of them would quickly move to within 100 feet of Challenger as soon as it rolled to a stop. They were to check the air around the spacecraft to make sure explosive or toxic levels of gases were not escaping from the fuel tanks or engines. Mobile wind machines would disperse the gases, if such gases were found.
If everything were normal, they would call two large trucks and trailers that would move in behind the orbiter. One would pump freon into the orbiter's cooling system while the other pumped cool, humidified air into the payload bay and fuselage to remove any residual explosive or toxic fumes.
After those were hooked up, the crew in the protective suits would check the air around the front of the shuttle to make sure it was free of toxic fumes. If they found it was, they would call in a truck that carries stairs topped by a ''white room'' large enough to carry four people.
The white room would seal itself onto the orbiter's hatch to prevent contaminants from entering the craft while its crew was getting out. Once the white room was in place, a physician would enter the orbiter to examine the astronauts before they disembarked.
All the television cameras would be focused on the crew as they came down the stairs and checked out their spacecraft before leaving on a astronaut transporter van, a modified recreational vehicle. But after the media attention focused elsewhere, work on securing the orbiter would continue as a support crew took over the craft.
Within two hours, the crew would have the orbiter connected to a tow vehicle similar to the trucks that pull commercial airliners.
After a trip lasting about an hour, the orbiter would be home in its processing facility to begin refurbishing for its next flight.