Crowds turn out for historic final flight of space shuttle Endeavour.
By Charly SHELTON
Stardate 9.21.2012. Mission 26. Space Shuttle Endeavour makes its 26th and final flight, coming for a touchdown at Los Angeles International Airport. But unlike the other 25 missions when Endeavour flew into space, orbiting the Earth 4,671 times and logging 122,883,151 miles according to NASA, this time it stayed sub- orbital, taking a ferry flight atop the Space Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a modified Boeing 747, that lasted four days and spanned the entire country. The trip included flights over mission control in Houston, Tex. and a four-hour flying tour of the Golden State, spanning from the capitol to the Golden Gate Bridge to many locations over Southern California. Among the more notable sites to receive flyovers in the southland were Disneyland, Disney and Universal studios, Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood sign and even La Crescenta on its way to circle JPL in La Cañada.
Along Cardiac Ridge at JPL, many curious onlookers, media and scientists craned their necks skyward for a chance to see the last flight of the space shuttle, a vessel on which many in attendance had worked. As they waited for the shuttle to arrive, stories were told and remembrances shared of the shuttle, creating an atmosphere almost wake-like, similar to saying goodbye to an old friend.
Steven Bard, a project manager on two different payloads that flew on Endeavour in 1996, was excited to see the shuttle again.
“[One of the payloads], the inflatable antenna experiment, was something that came out of a box that was the size of a desk, and then it deployed like a jack in the box to the size of a tennis court. It was a pretty spectacular visual event, and you could see it from the ground,” recalled Bard. “We actually were able to go outside from mission control at Johnson Space Center and luckily [Endeavour] was flying overhead. They told us where to look and you could see two little dots. One was the Endeavour, and behind it was the inflatable antenna. It was really pretty cool, so we are very excited that California is getting the Endeavour. It’s near and dear to our hearts.”
JPL wasn’t the only locale to share in the excitement. In the foothills area, cars could be found lined up along Angeles Crest Hwy. just south of the La Cañada Country Club, where drivers were out of their cars hoping to catch sight of the Endeavour’s pass over. The parking lots of the country club – all three – were equally full of sightseers who braved the heat to catch a glimpse of history.
Inverness Drive in La Cañada was another prime viewing spot that by noon was pretty well filled. Photographer Greg Cook was the first one there, arriving at 9 a.m. By noon, said Cook, latecomers were frustrated at not being able to find a parking spot.
That frustration was obvious along Oak Grove Drive as well where, from his perch, Cook saw what he described as “chaos.”
“There was a heavy volume of traffic,” Cook recalled. “People were trying to park, trying to get a view of the shuttle.”
Even along the Foothill (210) Freeway, there was confusion.
“Eastbound traffic was bumper to bumper with many cars pulled over to the shoulder,” Cook said. “CHP would come along and move them off the shoulder, but then more cars would just come along and take their place.”
He added that it was an indicator of how desperate some were to catch sight of Endeavour.
According to the NASA website, the Endeavour shuttle was built to replace the Challenger and was named after a ship chartered to traverse the South Pacific in 1768 and captained by 18th century British explorer James Cook, an experienced seaman, navigator and amateur astronomer. He commanded a crew of 93 men, including 11 scientists and artists.
“Cook’s achievements on Endeavour were numerous, including the accurate charting of New Zealand and Australia and successfully navigating the Great Barrier Reef,” states the website. “Thousands of new plant specimens and animal species were observed and illustrated on this maiden voyage. Cook also established the usefulness of including scientists on voyages of exploration. Space Shuttle Endeavour embodies similar experiences. Its first launch, the STS-49 mission, began with a flawless liftoff on May 7, 1992, beginning a journey filled with excitement, anticipation and many firsts.”
JPLer Howard Eisen, an Endeavor shuttle veteran, felt a definite connection to the shuttle from the time he spent working with it. After three missions on Endeavor, including serving as the lead mechanical engineer on the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), seeing the last flight was “definitely bittersweet.”
“We’ve certainly enjoyed our time with the shuttle, it has been a fantastic instrument for Earth science in particular [and] for us as well as space science for other missions JPL has been involved in,” said Eisen. “We feel like [Endeavor] is our orbiter because we’ve been involved in it so much. It was built here, and we are so happy it is going to be retired here.”
Endeavor is currently at LAX being unbolted from the carrier plane, a process that will take about two weeks. In early October, it will be carried by truck along a 12-mile route to the California Science Center where it will be permanently retired as an exhibit for the museum. The exhibit opens for the public on Oct. 30.