The End of the End (Part 7) November 21, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle, The End of the End
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This week, our “Celebrate the Journey” DVDs arrived from Kennedy Space Center. We are such space nerds that we requested NASA’s video documentation of the journey of the orbiter Atlantis from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the Visitor Complex. As of this week, Atlantis is enshrouded in thick, white plastic to protect it as construction workers finish the building around the orbiter.
We wrote about the first half of that November 2 journey in Part 4 of this series, and we’ve posted photos in Part 3 and Part 6. It’s time that we revealed the rest of the story of Atlantis’s transfer.
After the bigwigs signed the paperwork, with Atlantis parked behind them and a high school marching band and color guard joining in the pomp, the media—that’s us—boarded buses to the orbiter’s next stop: a community barbeque.
Exploration Park was brimming with families. The food stands—the ones with caffeine—were a welcome sight for us. The Kennedy Space Center public affairs representatives handed us off to the Visitor Complex public affairs representatives, and we were free to wander around as everyone waited for Atlantis.
With novelist and Lofty Ambitions guest blogger Margaret Lazarus Dean, we circled the silver Astrovan on display. NASA no longer had a need for the Astrovan, which used to transport astronauts to the launch pad, so here it was for us to see up close. We each meandered to check out the booths. The corporate newcomers to spaceflight were there. SpaceX displayed a mock-up of their Dragon capsule, Sierra Nevada showed a little Dream Chaser that’s more reminiscent of the shuttle, and XCOR was there with its own winged spacecraft, the Lynx.
All the while, speakers regaled the crowd with pep talks and stories. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and KSC Director Bob Cabana joined each other on stage, repeating some of what they’d said earlier in the day during the sign-over ceremony. They also shared something we didn’t know: they had both served in the Marines, their sons served in the Marines, and their sons had actually served together at some point. We’d never seen these two men more relaxed than during their friendly banter with a crowd of shuttle workers and their families.
Before long, the orbiter’s tail was in sight, rising above the tree line like a shark’s fin breaking the surface of the ocean. People gathered on the sides of the road, as security walked up and down to wave people back behind the sidewalk. Slowly, Atlantis rounded a bend and emerged. At a turn, right in the middle of this community barbeque, the orbiter, mounted on its transporter, stopped. The crowd swarmed the vehicle.
We stood under a wing. We walked around to stand under the orbiter’s nose. A Visitor Complex media representative indicated that this was the closest that the public had ever been allowed to get to a space shuttle. Adults pointed to different parts. Kids wriggled with excitement. And NASA let us all hang out with Atlantis for a good, long time.
When we were relatively sated, we headed to our next bus. We hadn’t eaten much, it was getting warm, and we could spend a few hours wandering around the Visitor Complex before the next official press event. The café was busier than we’d ever seen it, and the French fries were hot, salty, and delicious. The rocket garden had a nice breeze. And there were special exhibits set up for the day. That’s where we tried on spacesuit gloves and met a man who trained shuttle astronauts for Extra Vehicular Activity, or spacewalks. On the Space Coast, we’re used to staying busy even during what might look to be downtime.
The day was proceeding according to schedule, and next up was Atlantis traversing the last leg. We gathered by the ditch between the Visitor Complex and the road we’d driven to KSC many times. This was our hurry-up-and-wait stage, something by now familiar to our journalist selves. Finally, Atlantis rounded the last corner and headed our way.
Thirty astronauts—Apollo veterans as well as shuttle astronauts—led the space shuttle. Each was acknowledged by name as the group made the long pass in front of the large crowd of cheering onlookers. From Apollo, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Charlie Duke—though not necessarily in that order. From Shuttle, Fred Gregory, Kathy Thornton—astronauts we had interviewed before. Mary Cleave, Eileen Collins, Mark Lee, Norm Thagard—astronauts we would meet the next day. This group of former space-travelers led Atlantis all the way around the corner to the door of the orbiter’s new home.
The media scurried over to greet the orbiter and the astronauts there in the construction zone. The group gathered loosely in front of the orbiter for a photo op. Then, we all mingled for a few minutes. Some journalists pressed for interviews, and some of the astronauts headed into the gaping building and out of view. Anna introduced herself to Eileen Collins before all the astronauts made their way to their lodgings.
We waited for dusk. A few bright lights illuminated the orbiter. Finally, it was dark. The fireworks began bursting in air behind Atlantis. Pops and bangs. Green sparkles and silver steaks. Red, white, and blue, of course. A late burst in the dark, after we turned to leave. We were spent.
We caught a bus back to the News Center to retrieve our car. Margaret had already contacted Omar Izquierdo, her KSC insider friend and one of our Lofty Ambitions guest bloggers. We all met at El Leoncito in Titusville. We ate our fill of good Mexican food. We toasted to the events of the day.
Omar told us that folks at KSC had taken to say, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” That’s what a shuttle worker had said over the microphone at the beginning of the day, when Atlantis was emerging from the Vehicle Assembly Building in the pre-dawn darkness and chill. Omar and Margaret agreed that folks shouldn’t be smiling about the end of U.S. manned spaceflight. It’s okay to be sad, to be bitter. The space shuttle program had a two-year end, an end that ended when Atlantis arrived at its museum home. Though we remain happy to have seen as many moments of that story as we possibly could, on November 2, 2012, we were sad. What are we to do now?
Interview: Norm Thagard November 19, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Mars, Space Shuttle, The End of the End
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While we were in Florida for the last journey of space shuttle Atlantis, we met up with some astronauts. This experience reminded us of our happenstance interviews of two years earlier, which you can find at “A Year of Lofty Interviews.” Two weeks ago, we posted our follow-up interview with Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke. Today, we share our conversation with shuttle astronaut Norm Thagard.
Thagard flew on four shuttle missions between 1983 and 1995 and spent 115 days on Mir in 1995, for which he crammed to know enough Russian to do his job. According to NASA, Thagard reflected on his Mir experience by saying, “If anyone in 1969 had ever told me that I would wind up having a Lieutenant Colonel in the Russian force as a commander, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’” A transcript of his oral history, done by NASA after his retirement, can be found HERE. But first watch our video interview with Thagard to hear whether he thinks we stopped flying the shuttle too soon and whether he thinks we should go to Mars.
The California Story (Part 3) November 14, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: I Remember California, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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A little more than a week after our quadrennial national election, we wonder about our future in space. As space and aviation bloggers, we yearn for the clarity of a “We choose to go to the moon” moment. Time and time again, we have seen the power of space exploration to inspire, to inculcate aspirations to learn, to imagine, to engage. At our own institution, Chapman University, we once saw a young woman get up during an event in Memorial Hall and ask astronaut Mike Massimino, “How can I become an astronaut?” As we mentioned in the second part of this series, named after California Science Center’s newest exhibit, “The California Story,” Doug was surrounded by a class of fifth-graders pointing at the displays related to the space shuttle and challenging each other on their knowledge. Space inspires.
“The California Story” exhibit of space shuttle Endeavour nurtures that inspiration at the museum. In the first part of this series, we interviewed Ken Philips, who’s curating that exhibit. In part two of this series, we gave a general overview of the exhibit: space potty, Endeavour’s tires, scads of photos and videos, a couple of shuttle simulators, and a wide range of other displays. This week, we look at the part of the exhibit that captured and held Doug’s attention: the ROSC, or the Rocketdyne Operations Support Center. The ROSC is a launch control center dedicated to a single component in a shuttle launch: the space shuttle main engine (SSME).
The SSMEs are the three rocket engines attached to the tail of the shuttle orbiter. They are liquid propellant engines—as opposed to the solid fuel boosters—that burn a chemically potent mixture of cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which are fed from the large, orange external fuel tank. After the hydrogen and oxygen combine in the burning process, the exhaust that escapes from an SSME is essentially super-heated water vapor. In other words, it’s thrust. These SSMEs provide power.
Doug had stopped and gawked at the ROSC exhibit shortly after arriving at the Media Day event, but it wasn’t until he was chatting with Ken Phillips that Doug found out that the person responsible for bringing the ROSC to the California Science Center, Rocketdyne’s Dean Patmor, was at the day’s event. Phillips motioned towards Patmor, blue-shirted and standing nearby. After a quick introduction, Patmor related the story of how he arranged for the ROSC to wind up as a permanent part of “The California Story.”
Patmor’s efforts began eighteen months ago when he realized that Rocketdyne might be forced to scrap the ROSC. For thirty years, every single launch of the shuttle program, Rocketdyne engineers sat watch in the ROSC. But when the shuttle program ended, ROSC became a man-rated system without any launches to support. The ROSC would be “too expensive to maintain,” as Patmor put it, until NASA’s next human-rated launch system comes online. Fearing the loss of the historic control room, Patmor first contacted the California Science Center to see if they would be interested in giving the ROSC a part to play in the exhibit that they were creating for Endeavour. Once he had that part in motion, he broached the subject with his own management. Patmor’s approach is familiar to us at Lofty Ambitions: ask for forgiveness rather than permission.
During its working life, the ROSC was responsible for monitoring the SSMEs’ mind-boggling performance numbers in real-time. Here are just a few of those numbers. The SSMEs’ operating regime encompasses a temperature range 6500º F (-423º Fahrenheit to +6000º Fahrenheit). The engines’ high-pressure fuel turbopump delivers the hydrogen fuel to the combustion chamber under such great pressure (6,515 psia) that it could pump its contents thirty-six miles high into the atmosphere. During the shuttle’s eight-and-a-half minute ascent into orbit, the people in the ROSC kept a watchful eye on those numbers and more. For visitors to the exhibit, the monitors and screens of the ROSC display meaningful, but simulated, launch data. Using real launch data would be an ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) violation.
Doug asked Patmor to tell him one thing about the ROSC that no one else knew. Patmor demurred and explained that he couldn’t imagine that there was an aspect of the ROSC that wasn’t known in his community. But prompted by a colleague from Rocketdyne, Communications Specialist Erin Dick, Patmor led Doug into the consoles to show him the pizza button. This tiny, square, red button controlled one of the voice communication loops that engineers used to communicate. Patmor explained that, once a launch sequence begins (starting with tanking the shuttle about nine hours prior to launch), the engineers are stuck there for the duration. It was customary to provide meals for the ROSC team, hence the need for a pizza communication button.
As befits their name, Rocketdyne is still in the business of designing, building, testing, and launching rocket engines. Currently, they are focused on upgrading the eighteen remaining SSMEs—sixteen flight engines and two for development purposes—for their next role: flying on the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS, NASA’s next heavy launch vehicle, will make use of four (or perhaps five) of the refitted engines on its core stage. As an aside, Patmor added that once the proposed SLS got going, he fully well expected to be called back from retirement to help to design the SLS control center. A new kind of ROSC will emerge.
And so the story goes. When kids see Endeavour at the museum, they will wonder what it’s like to go to space. When they see the space potty, they’ll start to realize the complexities of traveling beyond our world. When they see the ROSC, they’ll begin to think like engineers and come up with new, unexpected reasons to have an extra button on a console. “The California Story,” as much as it evokes nostalgia, is designed to inspire a future of space exploration.
The End of the End (Part 6: PHOTOS) November 7, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Art & Science, Space Shuttle, The End of the End
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A few days ago, we posted PHOTOS, but we have hundreds of great shots of the great last ride of Atlantis. Today, we share some of the more personal photographs.
The End of the End (Part 5: VIDEO INTERVIEW) November 5, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Apollo, Space Shuttle, The End of the End
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On Saturday, we met several astronauts, some of whom agreed to talk with us on camera. We have a yearlong series of video interviews about the U.S. space program that ran ever other Monday from May 23, 2011 through May 7, 2012. We’re excited to build our list of interviews further with Dr. Ken Phillips, a curator at the California Science Center, posted on October 30 and now with Charlie Duke, the tenth man to walk on the Moon.
We interviewed Charlie Duke before, and you can find that post HERE. Today, we post an interview in which we ask him about his career, the end of the shuttle program, and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. And yes, this Apollo astronaut signed Anna’s Apollo skirt, right between the flag and the astronaut.
Without further ado, here is Charlie Duke.
The End of the End (Part 4) November 4, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle, The End of the End
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Just because the space shuttle program has been winding down toward the end of its end doesn’t mean that our work has become easier. In fact, this past week’s cross-country trip to the Space Coast proved to be one of the most demanding stints in our two-year adventure. Of course, the demands have huge rewards.
We flew to Florida on Wednesday. On Thursday, we headed to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) badging office and repeated the now-familiar routine of filling out simple paperwork and being handed what might be out last KSC media badges. We drove from there to the News Center to get the schedule for Friday’s retirement process for the space shuttle Atlantis. Two press briefings were scheduled Thursday afternoon; because they focused on the future, not the past, of human spaceflight, they deserve a separate post. For now, suffice it to say that, yes, we each asked a question. And yes, the briefings were broadcast on NASA-TV.
For the tasks at hand—following Atlantis—we discovered that Friday required a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call. Friday’s alarm clock (cell phones) wasn’t set quite as early as some other of our Space Coast ventures, but with the coast-to-coast time change, we got up near to when we usually go to bed.
We arrived at the KSC News Center by 5:15 a.m., the whole area still cloaked in darkness. Southern California doesn’t boast this deep, quiet darkness. The television news vans were already heading across the street to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and the press room was bustling with journalists working on adrenaline and caffeine, us among them. Just before 6:00 a.m., our writer-friend and Lofty Ambitions guest blogger Margaret Lazarus Dean, who was officially at KSC for The Huffington Post, arrived and met us at the buses. We boarded and headed to the VAB.
As soon as the press group disembarked, we all spread out along the media line. Photographers set up their tripods, and print journalists milled about. The VAB’s door was already raised, Atlantis inside. This first stop of the day was our opportunity to see, for the last time, the orbiter with those individuals who worked on it, as a group of shuttle workers gathered behind a banner celebrating their accomplishment. A commemorative song, complete with actual launch and landing commentary, played loudly—and then played again. The commentary on the recording was the voice of George Diller, a public affairs officer who did the launch commentary for STS-27 through STS-135; he was now standing just a few feet from us. Atlantis was backed out of the VAB for the last time ahead of schedule, turned, and moved slowly away into the darkness.
The press reboarded the buses. Next Stop: the corner of Kennedy Parkway and Schwartz Road for an in-transit photo op. With the VAB now looming behind the orbiter, Atlantis made its way past us. For an orbiter on the ground, it was moving at a good clip. Usually, the orbiter on a transporter travels at between two and four miles an hour. Later in the day, this orbiter would set a land speed record of ten miles per hour. The press re-boarded the buses.
On to the official handover of Atlantis from KSC to the Delaware North Corporation, which runs the Visitor Complex. We used the port-o-potties right away—better sooner than later when it comes to this particular decision. Then, we milled about because shuttle days are defined by hurry-up and wait.
VIPs and the STS-135 showed up. Anna eyed Sandy Magnus, a fellow Illinoisan and STS-135 mission specialist, standing with her crewmates Doug Hurley and Rex Walheim. Donned in her shuttle skirt, Anna approached and boldly asked whether the crew would sign her skirt. We had purchased metallic-ink Sharpies at Target the day before, and Anna had worked for years against shyness for just this sort of opportunity. The astronauts seemed a little confused yet willing, but their handler immediately said, “No autographs today.” The fear is that one autograph could lead to hundreds of requests. Anna was disappointed. There weren’t really that many people in the media and VIP area, and two male media got the male crew members to sign t-shirts they were wearing.
Sandy Magnus, though, struck up a conversation, impressed by the most unusual request to autograph a skirt. She thought her artsy sister might like the shuttle skirt. So she snapped a photo of Anna with her phone. It was the first and best of several requests that day to photograph the skirt or ask where it came from: Go Chase Rabbits.
When excitement about the skirt died down, NASA felt ready to start the retirement ceremony. A high school student named Sierra sang the National Anthem, and the Merritt Island High School color guard and Titusville High School marching band led Atlantis down the road to stop behind the ceremony stage.
The ceremony was short and to the point. Atlantis’s first and last commanders, Karol Bobko and Chris Ferguson, respectively, spoke about their relationships with the orbiter. Bill Moore from Delaware North spoke too. KSC Director Bob Cabana and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had their commemorative and uplifting say about the shuttle program’s end and the orbiter’s new role to educate and inspire. Bolden noted about NASA, “We are not in the history business. […] We are in the business of making science fiction into science fact.”
All the VIPs on stage then signed the care of Atlantis over to the Visitor Complex, as buzzards circled closer and closer overhead. This orbiter officially remains the property of NASA, the only orbiter indefinitely on loan to its museum home.
We re-boarded the buses. Friday had miles and hours yet to go before we could sleep. Stay tuned at Lofty Ambitions for the rest of the story. The party only got bigger.
The End of the End (Part 3: PHOTOS) November 3, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Last Chance to See, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle, The End of the End
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We are off to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex before we head home. To see a set of photos from yesterday’s long, fascinating day, go to “Atlantis Retirement, 2012″ at our Flicker Photostream. We include just one sample photo here as a teaser. Of course, we’ll have more to say about this end to the end of the space shuttle program in the days to come.
The End of the End (Part 2) November 2, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Last Chance to See, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle, The End of the End
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Okay, this is probably Part 100, having awakened at 4:00 a.m. and stayed with Atlantis until 7:30 p.m. But fireworks over the orbiter was a highlight we wanted to share as soon as we could. Just wait until you see the rest–soon!
The End of the End (Part 1) November 1, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Last Chance to See, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle, The End of the End
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Yesterday, we flew from California to Florida. Two years ago, we began our adventure in earnest, and we’ve followed the end of the space shuttle since then. Two years ago on November 1, Discovery faced a launch delay. Today, we woke and went to Denny’s for pancakes and eggs, trying our best to get our heads adjusted to the three-hour time difference and face the end of the end of the shuttle program.
We drove the familiar route to the badging office, showed the requisite two IDs, filled out the requisite paperwork, and clipped what might be our last Kennedy Space Center (KSC) media badges to our persons.
Then, we made our familiar way to the News Center at KSC. On the way, we drove part of the route that Atlantis will traverse tomorrow, and we saw the structure where the orbiter will be permanently housed. We drove toward the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), a building so large that photographs can’t properly capture its scale. We turned right and then again into the parking lot for media folks. That’s who we are when we’re here.
We walked over to the countdown clock. There’s nothing left to count down.
The News Center is relatively quiet. Two press briefings about the future of space exploration are scheduled for this afternoon. We’re nerds, so we’re looking forward to that chat with the bigwigs in the studio here.
Tomorrow, we must return to the News Center before 6:00 a.m. That’s 3:00 a.m. in our California heads. The plan is for Atlantis to leave the VAB at 8:30 a.m., weave its way to a retirement ceremony at 10:00 a.m., and then make its way to a celebration at Exploration Park. That’s where the KSC media escorts will hand us off to the Visitor Complex media escorts. The orbiter’s journey will conclude at the large new, still ramshackle-looking structure at the corner of the Visitor Complex. Word is that this arrival will be at about 6:00 p.m., with fireworks to follow.
We’re exhausted just thinking about our twelve-hour workday tomorrow. But what better way to spend a Friday. We’re pretty sure the adrenaline will kick in. In fact, just writing this post, we’re getting pretty excited about what’s about to unfold.
The California Story (Part 2) October 31, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, I Remember California, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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Chattering fifth-graders pass around us on all sides. A small group of three—two boys and a girl—stop along a wall that recounts the space shuttle Endeavour’s twenty-five-mission history in text and crew images. The children are tightly clustered, shoulder to shoulder, in front of the placard for STS-134, Endeavour’s final mission. Ken Phillips—the California Science Center’s Curator for Aerospace Science and someone that we have interviewed before—tell Doug that, when he sees students “arguing and pointing,” he knows that he has their interest. If that’s the bar by which success is measured, the California Science Center’s newest exhibit, Endeavour: The California Story, is going to be a runaway success.
The fifth-graders have come from the Science Center School, a grade school located on the same Exposition Park property as the California Science Center. Approximately 600 students in K-5 classrooms attend the school. When Doug visited on the media preview day, some of these kids are also getting a preview of this new exhibit.
Upon entering the exhibit hall, a space that took months to assemble, the first thing that attracted Doug’s attention was the smell of rubber. Just inside the entrance is a display of the tires that were used on Endeavour’s last mission. The smell, just like standing next to a stack of brand new tires in an automotive showroom, is all the more amazing for two facts: first, the six tires—two from the nose gear and four from the main gear—have been in outer space; and second, they look to have had a hard life, with worn patches dotting their skin. And they did. On Endeavour’s final mission, STS-134, they spent fourteen days in space. During that time, even thought they were tucked away inside the shuttle’s landing gear bay, they reached a constant temperature of -40F.
But that’s nothing compared to what happens to tires during landing. The shuttle lands at roughly 220 miles per hour. The initial contact between the tires and the runway tarmac is so vigorous that onlookers can see puffs of smoke. Because of the wear from a landing, the active life of shuttle tires is also short: the main gear tires are used only once, and depending on wear patterns, the nose gear tires will be used no more than twice. So, despite the intensity of their working life, these tires at the exhibit are still very new, having less than four miles of use on them. A sign on top of the tire display encourages visitors to touch them, and Doug and the grade-schoolers did just that!
Just beyond the tires is another display, one that is likely to be the most popular part of the collection for a wide range audiences because it promises to answer the “deepest, darkest secret in spaceflight.” Mary Roach devoted a whole chapter of Packing for Mars to this hush-hush topic. It’s a question that we’ve been told astronauts and other NASA science communicators are asked on a regular basis: How does one GO up there? The California Story has an entire display dedicated to that universal human experience, and the center of attraction is the Waste Collection System, or WCS in NASA acronym-speak. An accompanying video, featuring one of our favorite astronauts, Mike Massimino, gives an overview of not just the Space Potty but also the astronaut training that is required for proper use. A visit to this exhibit is required for all space nerds if only to hear Massimino relate that using the facilities reminds him of Peter Fonda riding a motorcycle in Easy Rider. The only disappointing aspect of the display was that it didn’t contain a reference to The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz, whose major contribution to science is this essential technological equipment.
The exhibit also includes a wonderful photo of Endeavour making its way through the streets of Los Angeles, an elapsed time video of that whole journey, two motion simulators, and a number of other engaging displays. There’s more, but we’ll save that for a subsequent post.
Or better yet, see all this and more for yourself. The Endeavour exhibit opened to the public yesterday, and the museum’s SpaceFest runs through Sunday and features astronaut presentations on the weekend. California Science Center admission is free—that’s right, you can see a space shuttle for free.
Meanwhile, we’re off to the Space Coast to see the last orbiter, Atlantis, make its way the few miles to the Visitor Complex at Kennedy Space Center. It’s exactly two years since we began our quest to see a launch, and this Friday, our journey with the space shuttle will end. We’ll tell you all about it—with photos—right here at Lofty Ambitions.