On Friday, we’re headed to Kennedy Space Center yet again. On this trip, we’ll watch as space shuttle Endeavour is made ready for its journey across the country on the back of a Boeing 747. That 3000-mile trip will end next week in California, our home and the birthplace of all the space shuttle orbiters. The shuttle will land first at Dryden Flight Research Center, then take the short trip to LAX to await its journey to the California Science Center by street in October.
In our very first video interview, a sit-down conversation with NASA Johnson Director Mike Coats, Anna finished the interview with a Stephen Colbert-esque question: “Discovery, great shuttle, or the greatest shuttle?” He hemmed and hawed but admitted that, having flown on it three times, Discovery was the greatest. In out interviews with astronauts since then, we’ve asked a variation of that question, with varied responses. If we turn that question back on ourselves right now, the question would be about Endeavour, and the answer would be Greatest.
In carrying out our project of watching the end of the space shuttle program, the end of America’s ability to launch its own astronauts into space, we’ve had a serendipitous relationship with Endeavour. Just about four years ago, during the long Thanksgiving weekend in November 2008, we drove out into the Mojave Desert to watch the conclusion of STS-126. Endeavour flew that mission, and when it landed that day, Endeavour became the first shuttle that we witnessed firsthand doing its job of carrying astronauts, experiments, and materiel to and from low-earth orbit.
In May 2011, Endeavour became the first shuttle that we watched launch. We will always carry that moment with us. The overwhelming sound, heat, and image of the shuttle rising—an improbable procession of smoke, fire, and machinery—for those few seconds before it disappeared into the cloud deck serve as a mental totem, a concise expression of what dedicated people can achieve, something to which we each refer when we grasp for a moment of awe.
When we returned to the Space Coast for STS-135, Stephanie Stilson, NASA’s shuttle flow director, gave the us a personal tour of Endeavour as it was, in NASA-speak, being downprocessed, made ready for a completely new mission as an artifact. We’ve never been closer to a spacecraft than on that day. We stood just inches away from Endeavour’s heat shield, a combination of blankets and tiles that are simultaneously able to slough off the enormous heat a shuttle generates during reentry but can be compromised by water (the blankets) or damaged by an errant finger (the tiles). Now, we are going to spend the next week following Endeavour as it comes home to Southern California.