NASA’s space shuttles have journeyed into orbit well more than 100 times, making more than 20,000 loops around the planet along the way. But their final journeys to Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and New York are a logistical feat all their own. NASA moves the shuttles on the back of a modified 747, but no one has shipped a shuttle like that in more than 20 years. So NASA is dusting off some old equipment at Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week, practicing the careful business of lifting spaceships.

The space agency has unboxed its specially-built sling, four huge masts, and two cranes that are necessary for the complex procedure. The space shuttles, stripped down for public viewing, will each weigh some 175,000 pounds–or more than 87 tons–enough to bow the boom of the cranes. And naturally NASA would prefer not to drop one of them (there’s a limited supply).

So the crew of about 45 people that will undertake the mating and de-mating of shuttle to carrier aircraft are getting some practice runs in at the Shuttle Landing Facility at KSC. They are using a mobile setup last used in 1985 to move the shuttle Enterprise to Washington D.C. rather than the specially designed “mate-demate devices” (MDDs) that were built at KSC and Edwards AFB decades ago. Those MDDs are actual structures designed for this kind of lifting. But crews bound for D.C., New York, and Los Angeles will have no such luxury when they start moving shuttles next year.

As such, the teams are rethinking and redesigning some procedures so that the system will work at each of the locations. At KSC they’ve had to drill about 200 holes in the area around the lift site to anchor all the gear, and presumably they’ll have to make similar alterations at the lift sites at the shuttles’ final destinations.

In short, moving a space shuttle is no small undertaking, and NASA is treating this like any other shuttle mission–with lots of preparation and practice prior to the real thing. Discovery will be the first shuttle to make the move, bound for the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in D.C. sometime in spring 2012.