Endeavour leaves KSC for the final time, years before her time

The youngest orbiter in the Space Shuttle fleet has departed from her home port of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for the final time, for an early retirement in California. The world famous spaceport now only has one orbiter in its care, Atlantis, with no real prospect of human launches returning until the next decade. However, it was nearly a very different story.

Endeavour’s Farewell Tour:

Although departure was delayed by two days – due to poor weather – the end of Endeavour’s career at KSC was always coming, as she awaited departure atop of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) since the duo were mated over the weekend.

Departing at 7:22am, the flight path took Endeavour to the northwest, across the Florida panhandle and toward Houston after low-level passes over the Stennis Space Center in southwest Mississippi and the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF), to the east of New Orleans.

Arriving in the Houston area at approximately 9 am CDT, the SCA crew initiated a series of 1,500 foot flyover of various areas of the city, including downtown Houston, before heading to the Clear Lake area – home of the Johnson Space Center (JSC).

The SCA and Endeavour landed at Ellington Field at about 10:45 am CDT, where the duo remained for one night, rather than the pre-planned two. A huge crowd was on hand to see the orbiter.

The SCA/Endeavour departed at dawn on Thursday and make a fueling stop at Biggs Army Air Field in El Paso before proceeding to Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

On Friday they will depart Dryden for a flyover of northern California and areas of the Los Angeles basin before landing at LAX between 11 am and noon PDT.

There preparations will be made for Endeavour’s move to the California Science Center in October.

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Endeavour Leaves With Honor:

OV-105 had big shoes to fill, as she replaced the fallen sister she never got to meet, Challenger.

Born out of the structural spares created during the construction flows for Discovery and Atlantis, and bearing the name of Captain James Cook’s British exploration ship, Endeavour was transported into KSC by the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft in 1991.

Joining the rest of the fleet, Endeavour made her mission debut on May 7, 1992 – launching on the STS-49 mission from Pad 39B. It would be the first of 25 missions carried out by the the orbiter, successfully launching and returning 148 crewmembers, who enjoyed nearly 300 days and 4,671 orbits in space under the protection of their good ship.

Although 122 million miles on the clock may sound like Endeavour has enjoyed a full career as a spaceship, the orbiter was designed – and absolutely could have flown – for many more missions.

Her departure, farewell tour across the United States, and arrival in California will be rightly treated as a celebration, at least in the context of the vehicle’s achievements, along with the inspiration her presence will undoubtedly provide to her visitors at the California Science Center.

However, retired spaceships do little to change the misconception the general public have about NASA at present – as recently noted at a political hearing, where concerns were raised that a large section of Americans are of the opinion the space program ended with the fleet’s retirement, despite the obviousness of the International Space Station (ISS), along with recent success of flagship missions, such as Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

The bottom line – it was suggested – is that the majority of the public view the launching of American astronauts on the Space Shuttle will forever be the icon of NASA for years to come, simply due to the fact that is what they have seen the Agency do for the past 30 years.

Sadly, the reality is the most powerful nation on Earth no longer holds that capability, for at least another three years – and even then it will not be on the iconic Space Shuttle, but more likely on small capsules, riding atop of commercial rockets.

The Efforts To Save Endeavour From Early Retirement:

Less publicized was the effort to extend the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) past STS-135 – itself an “extra” mission to help stockpile the ISS during the transition to Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) missions.

Multiple high level attempts were made to keep the orbiters flying over recent years, starting with the late Sally Ride’s effort at the Augustine Commission into the future of Human Space Flight – which took into consideration options for an extension to 2015, in tandem with the development of a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV). (L2 Link to documentation).

While the main Shuttle contractor – the United Space Alliance (USA) – also produced proposals, first via the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) drive, before then calling for a study to finalize the architecture for a Commercial Shuttle Transportation Service (CSTS) – (L2 Link).

The problem with the proposals was not technical, despite efforts from some bodies to claim safety concerns. The issue was – as always – was mainly related to funding, with NASA’s budget simply unable to bridge the gap between the end of Shuttle and the development of both the commercial crew development, along with the money required to build the exploration architecture involving the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion.

However, behind the scenes and held under embargo, a secret effort to keep Endeavour and Atlantis flying was worked, involving billions of dollars of private investment being pumped back into shuttle operations, saving the two orbiters for a return to flight operations no earlier than the end of 2014.

The plan – most of which remained private – would have resolved the problem of NASA funding constraints, worked around the issue of shuttle contractors being shut down over previous years and extended the role of Shuttle through the decade, in a staged return to flight involving one flight at the end of 2014, then two in 2015, three in 2016, and four a year beginning in 2017.

Details of the plan – and some of those involved with the effort – were revealed by NASASpaceFlight.com in December of 2011. However, the plan was only released for publication after the key meetings with NASA, meetings that ultimately ended the effort.

While the team was aware of the programmatic, technical and operational issues which required resolution before returning the orbiters to flight operations, the plan was to initially request NASA issued a “stop order” on further T&R work for Atlantis and Endeavour, allowing for a several month period to finalize solutions to all known challenges relating to restart.

Via the discussions with NASA, the main problem did not prove to be the technical ability to return the two orbiters to flight, nor the often-used dark cloud of crew safety.

The roadblock in the plan was the transition – or repurposing – of KSC to being able to host SLS, despite the Shuttle Derived Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) being classed as a system friendly to Shuttle extension at the Augustine Commission.

The team’s final communication confirmed the end of their effort, noting they were refocusing on evaluations into a next-generation, Shuttle-capable vehicle.

Follow on resources:
Public Forum Reaction To Restart Plan Thread.
L2 Q&A with team members on the Shuttle Restart Effort.
L2 Q&A and Updates on the Next Gen Vehicle Effort.

To read about the orbiters -  from birth, processing, every single mission, through to retirement, click here for the links:
http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=25837.0

(Images: Via L2 and NASASpaceFlight.com, Philip Sloss/NASASpaceflight.com. Additional via NASA and NASA TV)

(L2 and NSF are continuing to follow the orbiters through to their retirement. To join L2, click here: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)

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