Yesterday, we rose early and braved the traffic, driving almost two hours to the California Science Center because that museum will be the new, permanent home of space shuttle Endeavour. Earlier this year, we saw Endeavour on the launch pad. We were at Kennedy Space Center for its last not-launch and its last launch, which was the first shuttle launch we witnessed in person (all our posts in the Endeavour series are listed HERE). After Atlantis took to the skies, we toured Endeavour as it was being de-processed in the Orbiter Processing Facility. On Tuesday, the title for this orbiter was transferred from NASA to the California Science Center, and we wanted to be present for #EndeavourLA. Who knew that, like your car, a spacecraft would have a title? View it here: Transfer Order.
Four years ago, this was exactly the kind of event that we were hoping to experience when we discussed moving to Southern California. We first discussed the possibility of coming to Chapman University and Orange in December 2007, during a holiday car ride in downstate Illinois (a ride we will take again tomorrow as we make our way to Homecoming at Knox College). Aviation nerds that we are, we were already well acquainted with rich aviation history of Southern California. Howard Hughes’s HK-1, the Spruce Goose, made it’s only flight in nearby Long Beach Harbor (for Spruce Goose curator’s guest blog, click HERE and more Lofty goose HERE). Douglas Aviation’s game-changing DC-3 was designed, built, and first flew from Santa Monica. And the speed of sound was first broken by an aircraft in the nearby Mojave Desert (the 64th anniversary of this event is in two days, on October 14th).
Even so, we never dreamed that we would be involved in a pursuit of this scope. We certainly hadn’t considered writing this blog together, and we had no plans to watch in person the space shuttle’s final launches. In fact, even this time last week, we fully expected that today’s post would be the third part of our series on the MCAS Miramar Air Show (parts 1 and 2 are HERE and HERE). We have some unfinished business to address about our history with air shows and how it led to our collaborative endeavors. We also have two more posts about writing as a couple in the pipeline. We had plenty about which to write without this week’s trek into L.A. But as ever, chance has intervened, Doug made a quick call to get us on the media list for #EndeavourLA, and here we are. When does a project take on a life of its own? How does it reach a place where, almost daily, new tidbits feed into it?
Shortly after we arrived at the California Science Center yesterday, we headed into the main hall. In front of the stage were six used shuttle tires, from Atlantis, Columbia, and Discovery, complements of Dryden Flight Research Center. We also recognized a friendly journalist face. Rob Pearlman of collectSPACE is covering each orbiter as it makes its way to its museum home, and we reintroduced ourselves. As we found at Kennedy Space Center, journalists tend to share information in a give and take. He told us about the group press interview with the astronauts, and later we gave him a tidbit.
Upstairs, the VIP party was wrapping up, June Lockhart from Lost in Space was chatting with people, and four STS-134 astronauts were soon shuffled over to a table where they answered questions for the press. This was the first time we’d seen the last Endeavour crew since the astronaut walkout before sunrise on May 16, 2011. Mark Kelly, Greg Johnson, Mike Fincke, and Andy Feustal looked great (Roberto Vittori—or Ricky Bobby, as Mike Fincke called him—and Greg Chamitoff couldn’t make the event). (More Lofty notions about the STS-134 crew HERE.) Afterward, we walked down the stairs with Mike Fincke, close enough to touch his shoulder, while Greg Johnson joked around on the escalator beside.
What did we learn yesterday? On the space shuttle, M&Ms are worth fighting for, but, as Greg Johnson said, “You don’t have Diet Coke like I’m addicted to here on Earth.” He was also pleased with the effects of zero gravity on astronauts’ height and pointed out that he and his fellow crew could use a few inches but had shrunk right back down upon return. Greg Johnson became an astronaut because, in his words, “When I was seven years old, […] I watched Neil Armstrong step on the Moon.”
Mike Fincke knew he wanted to be an astronaut when he was three years old. He assured the crowd, including the school children from the science center’s elementary school, that NASA has just hired a group of astronauts. He’s told his own daughter, “Both boys and girls can be astronauts.” Both in the press briefing upstairs and in the Q&A in the main hall, he emphasized that the space shuttle program had opened spaceflight to a range of people. “It doesn’t matter the color of your skin or how much money your parents have.” That said, “It’s a technical field” so science, engineering, and math matter. Based on STS-134 and his earlier stint on the International Space Station, he also pointed out, “We need our toes, our big toes specially, to push off” and move around the shuttle or ISS. “Imagine you feel like your normal self,” he said of being in the zero gravity of space, “except you can fly.”
Enthusiasm, science and math education, and toes. That’s what’s required to be an astronaut. As we watched the astronauts watching their own home movie of STS-134, we were reminded that astronauts are a special type and also just like the rest of us. They were captivated by the video footage of their journey, sometimes whispering in each other’s ears or pointing at a corner of the screen. “We had fun morning to night,” Andy Feustal said (and morning and night come around more quickly in orbit). Anna pointed at the screen herself, pointed at herself on the screen in the astronaut walkout segment, though we couldn’t actually make ourselves out in that predawn crowd from May. The home movies of these four astronauts are our home movies too, not just for the two of us at Lofty Ambitions but for our generation.
Maybe we’re already becoming nostalgic about the space shuttle and about Endeavour in particular, which Mark Kelly pointed out was made from spare parts to replace Challenger. He joked. “I think having a reusable spacecraft is only slightly more expensive” than those built for one-time use. This reusable spacecraft won’t be reused again. It will go on display next fall, if all goes well, and then later will be moved to a second, permanent display in the vertical position to be exhibited as if ready for launch, with its solid rocket boosters and orange fuel tank. But that’s years off; engineers are still working on how to make sure the vertical display will maintain the orbiter’s structural integrity for at least 250 years.
The STS-134 crew believes the California Science Center will be a good home for Endeavour, in part because of the millions of people who will eventually see it in person. They don’t want the orbiter significantly altered or Hollywooded-up. Jeffrey Rudolph, CEO and President of the science center (and Monday’s video interview HERE) agrees, pointing out that the engineer who gave him his tour of Endeavour at KSC (that’s Lofty Ambitions guest blogger Kim Guodace HERE) told him this is her baby he’s getting.
That’s not to say that there won’t be a big homecoming party next fall. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that Endeavour would arrive on a B-747 that would circle the city three times before landing. Then, a parade from LAX to the museum. James T. Butts, Inglewood mayor for just seven months now, couldn’t be happier that the parade route goes through his town. His father worked on the X-15 at North American Aviation, and he’s long admired the journey “to boldly go where men cannot survive without special equipment.”
Space Shuttle Program: $209,000,000,000
Orbiter, Shuttle Endeavour, OV-105: $1,980,674,785.00
Our Lofty Memories: Priceless (not without cost, but still, pretty darn priceless)