Truth is, Space Shuttle Endeavour and I never really had a long-term relationship.
I never went to see Endeavour blast off into space, and I never watched it glide back to earth. I never stepped inside it, or met an astronaut who had flown it. In fact, I never had any particular interest in Endeavour — other than the fact that it was a Space Shuttle, and all the shuttles were inherently interesting. Despite that, I got to know Endeavour rather well, in a very intimate way, at a very special place, during a very special moment just before it settled into sequestered retirement.
It was September 20, 2012, and I had been invited by the (wonderful) NASA Social program to visit the Dreyden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in the southern California desert. We were there to see Endeavor as it arrived for the final leg of its ferry-flight en route to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where it would be put on permanent display.
The entire shuttle fleet had been decommissioned, and all the other orbiters had already settled into retirement. Shuttle Enterprise, a non-functional prototype, had been relocated to the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York City. Shuttle Discovery went to the Smithsonian Museum in Virginia. Atlantis stayed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where most shuttle flights had originated.
But Endeavour still needed to get to its permanent home. So in September 2012, NASA bolted the shuttle to the back of its Boeing 747 carrier aircraft for one final transcontinental flight to California. By the time I caught up with the duo on September 20, it was the last time in history when Endeavour — or any shuttle orbiter — would ever be perched on the back of a 747, exposed to the sun and the wind, and looking much as it did during most of its working life. The very next day, Endeavour would stop being a spacecraft and start its tenure as a museum piece.
NASA carted us out the side of a runway at Edwards, just in time to watch Endeavour make a grand entrance — just like in the old days:
Endeavour had a great career. The youngest shuttle in NASA's fleet, it had been ordered as a replacement for Challenger, the shuttle lost following a horrific explosion during liftoff in 1986. Endeavour was built from spare parts left over from shuttles Atlantis and Discovery, and construction was completed in 1991. The name was selected by American schoolchildren as a tribute to HMS Endeavour, the 106-foot British ship Captain James Cook sailed to explore the South Pacific during the late eighteenth century.
In 1992, shuttle Endeavour, shiny and white, blasted into space for its maiden voyage:
Endeavour carried astronauts to the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993 for an 11-day mission to replace Hubble's defective optics and restore its deep-space vision:
Endeavour docked with MIR, the Russian space station, in 1998. Later that same year, Endeavour became the first shuttle to visit the International Space Station (ISS) as its crew delivered and helped assemble the station's American-made Unity module. All told, Endeavour flew 25 missions and traveled to ISS twelve times:
Endeavour returned from its final space flight in May 2011. By the time I came along in 2012, Endeavour's glory days were already the stuff of space-geek history.
A short while after Endeavour touched down at Edwards, I got to see that the physical effects of that history up close.
The mood at Edwards was giddy as a crowd of visitors gathered on the tarmac around Endeavour and the 747.
Then the sun dropped a little lower in the sky, the crowds were ushered away, and Endeavour and I got to spend some quiet time together.
Eventually, I was invited to climb the stairs toward the 747's open door:
The shuttle's exterior is covered in heat-resistant tiles that shielded the orbiter from the 3000 F degree temperatures of atmospheric re-entry. The black tiles were the most critical, because they protected the parts of the spacecraft that endured the greatest heat. The loss of shuttle Columbia during re-entry in 2003 was attributed to the damage a few of these black tiles sustained during launch — damage that exposed Columbia's vulnerable inner structure to the fatal effects of searing hot plasma.
The scorched gray burn marks revealed the flow and intensity of the heat that clawed at the shuttle as it returned to earth. The dark black patches were new tiles, swapped in by NASA workers to replace ones that had been chipped. Together, the tiles fused form and function to tell a story about nature's power — and one of humanity's most ingenious efforts to defy it.
At the top of the stairway, the mission markings on the side of NASA's 747 revealed that it, too, had some stories to tell:
It wasn't possible to enter Endeavour, but the 747 was open to explore. Inside, stripped bare to reduce weight, NASA's plane provided a vivid lesson in aircraft anatomy. Take away all the seats, carpets, wall panels, and overhead bins, and this is basically what you'd see if you looked toward the nose of a typical 747 airliner.
Way up front, behind the big blue tarp, a small area of the cabin retained a few passenger amenities. It looked like a 1980s-vintage first class compartment, with a handful of oversized seats. But the forward bulkhead included a special tribute to this 747's most important passenger:
The sun was starting to set, the tarmac was empty, and Endeavour was quiet. I headed outside to take a parting shot:
The next day, Endeavour would take to the skies for the very last time.
The flight plan called for the shuttle to fly north from Edwards to the Bay Area for a high-profile tour over San Francisco before heading south again to arrive in Los Angeles. Hundreds of thousands of people were expected to turn out to witness the final flight, so I was grateful to enjoy a few solitary moments with Endeavour in the final hours before a major chapter in the history of human spaceflight came to an end.
NASA invited me to return the next day to watch the shuttle's final piggyback take-off, but I politely declined. Instead, I decided to drive 400 miles back to San Francisco, to watch the flyby from my home in the city. After all that high-quality, one-on-one time on the ground, I thought it would be more fun to say a final goodbye to Endeavour as it soared overhead.
And sure enough, a little after 10 am on the morning of September 21, shuttle Endeavour arrived in San Francisco.
A few minutes after circling the Golden Gate Bridge, Endeavour flew right by my house. A neighbor captured this video of it floating lazily over San Francisco's Bernal Hill:
After that, Endeavour turned south for the short flight down to LA, with a photogenic pass near the famous Hollywood sign. Then came the final landing at LAX, and one last separation from the 747. Never again would a space shuttle take to skies. Never again would the wind pass beneath the wings of a NASA shuttle orbiter.
Today Endeavour sits inside a climate-controlled shed at the California Science Center. It's not a bad place to end up, I suppose. Still, I got to know Endeavour pretty well during its last few hours of airworthiness, so I feel confident saying this: Endeavour was definitely born to be somewhere else.
Photos: Images of Endeavour and carrier 747 at Edwards Air Force Base by Todd Lappin/Telstar Logistics. Images of Endeavour airborne or in space via NASA (in the public domain).