Endeavour prepares for road journey to her CSC retirement home

by Philip Sloss
Space Shuttle Orbiter Endeavour was turned over to the California Science Center by NASA and United Space Alliance (USA) at a hangar at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) at the end of September, signaling that she is ready to roll to her retirement home in the middle of the month.

Endeavour Closing In On Final Resting Place:

The NASA/USA workforce spent the last several days following Endeavour’s arrival at LAX reconfiguring the veteran spaceship from her recent ferry flight to how she will be displayed at the California Science Center beginning on October 30.

“We’ve already transferred title to California Science Center…so we’re doing this work for them, they’re paying us to do this work,” Stephanie Stilson, NASA Flow Director for Orbiter Transition and Retirement, said just before Endeavour left Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for Los Angeles.

Endeavour was delivered to Los Angeles on September 21, at the conclusion of the final cross-country Shuttle ferry.

NASA 905, the first of two 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), landed at LAX after leaving Edwards Air Force Base in California after sunrise and conducting the final set of flyovers of major cities and landmarks in Northern California and the greater Los Angeles area.

After touchdown and roll out at LAX, the 747 taxied to a nearby United Airlines hangar where a ceremony was held to commemorate the arrival of the youngest Shuttle orbiter and the start of final preparations to transport the veteran spaceship to her new home in downtown Los Angeles beginning on October 12.

The start of the ferry flight was delayed two days by a strong, pre-Autumnal cold front that swept through the Southeastern part of the United States, bringing heavy rain and turbulent air conditions all along the first part of the planned ferry route.

With the weather behind them, the ferry team, including the SCA flight crew on-board the 747 and the support team flying ahead of them on a NASA C-9 Pathfinder aircraft, embarked from KSC shortly after sunrise on September 19.

With Endeavour riding on top, the 747 circled the Cape Canaveral and KSC area several times, giving the Shuttle workforce, former Shuttle workers who were laid off after the program ended, local residents, and visiting spectators a chance to say goodbye to the Shuttle.

From Central Florida the ferry headed up and around the Gulf of Mexico, flying over some of the NASA and contractor facilities that supported the Shuttle Program during its 40 years of development and operations.

The first leg of the flight concluded with a flyover of the area around the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, before landing at nearby Ellington Field for the first overnight stop.

At Ellington, the past and present JSC workforce were given a final opportunity to come out and see Endeavour, much as they greeted the spaceship when she was brand new and headed to Florida for the first time in May, 1991.

Due to the two-day delay getting started, Endeavour and the SCA only stayed at Ellington for one night rather than the two originally planned.

At daybreak on September 20, the ferry group left Ellington Field and made the long trip across Texas before stopping to refuel at Biggs Army Air Base in El Paso.

From Biggs in West Texas, the ferry first made another low-altitude flyover of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and then later flew over Tucson, Arizona, before continuing on to the high desert of California and Edwards.

A NASA F/A-18 aircraft took off from Edwards to rendezvous with the ferry in the vicinity of the area and to take imagery as Endeavour and the 747 circled over Edwards and Dryden before landing on the familiar concrete Runway 22L, where dozens of Shuttle missions landed.

The ferry parked overnight at the adjoining Shuttle facilities at Dryden Flight Research Center, where the SCAs were based for most of their operational life, marking a final return for a Space Shuttle to Edwards and Dryden, where 54 Shuttle missions concluded during the 30 years of flight operations that ended last year.

As in Houston, Dryden and Edwards employees, military personnel, and families came out to see a Shuttle orbiter there one final time.

Endeavour’s first landing was at Edwards in May, 1992, to complete her maiden flight and also marking the debut of the orbiter drag chute.

Her most recent visit to Dryden and her last Shuttle landing at Edwards was at the conclusion of STS-126 in November, 2008, when she landed with Commander Chris Ferguson at the controls on Runway 04L, a shorter, asphalt runway that was in use while the main runway was undergoing maintenance.

That landing gave Ferguson (who subsequently commanded the final Shuttle flight, STS-135, last year) the record for the shortest runway a Shuttle landed on, at a length of 12,000 feet.

“I do remember vividly, you’re at a higher altitude at Edwards and so your speed over the ground is actually faster due to the high altitude, so you carry a lot more momentum into your landing,” he said in an interview before STS-135.

“That’s saying a lot for a vehicle that already lands at 205 knots. I just remember touching down and derotating, and my habit is as soon as the nose gear touches the ground…I look over and I see what the remaining runway marks are, so I know how urgent the braking has to be.

“Typically at KSC you’re looking at 10,000 feet and I remember watching the 5,000 foot marker go by before the nose had touched the ground and I thought ‘oh my goodness, we really need to stop!’ The Shuttle has got a great braking system, but at that moment in time I was back in the Ames VMS – Vertical Motion Simulator that we use. It’s a testament to your training: when in doubt, you always refer back to your training and it usually gets you through.”

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The last Shuttle landing at Edwards was made by Orbiter Discovery to complete the STS-128 mission in September, 2009.

The ferry flight team met at Dryden after the landing and decided to delay the departure on September 21 by one hour, to allow more time for the marine layer along the California coast to burn off prior to arrival in the area.

A little before 8 am Pacific, the 747 began taxing from Dryden up the Edwards flight line to Runway 04R.

In a scene familiar to other recent Edwards ferry takeoffs, the F/A-18 chase plane took off just before the 747, flew a fast racetrack pattern to come back around and line up parallel with the runway capturing pictures and video while flying alongside the Endeavour and the 747 as they began the take off roll.

The SCA took off from Edwards at 8:17 am Pacific.

After a short loop over Rosamond to the west and back over Edwards, the ferry flew over the nearby Palmdale Airport and the adjacent Air Force Plant 42 facility where Endeavour and all the Shuttle orbiter vehicles were assembled, while the Pathfinder aircraft took off to join the group.

After saluting her Antelope Valley birthplace, the SCA took Endeavour north to Sacramento, circling the state capitol before continuing on to the Bay Area, where the ferry flew over landmarks in the Oakland/East Bay and San Francisco area, including a low flyover of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

From there, the ferry turned towards the South Bay, flying over Moffett Field and Ames Research Center, and then back out along the coast to the Monterey area before continuing back to Southern California.

On the way, the SCA carried Endeavour over Vandenberg Air Force Base, site of West Coast Shuttle facilities for launch, landing, and ground processing that were cancelled and abandoned in the late 1980s prior to completion.

With two jets flying chase alongside, the Shuttle-747 combination flew over several landmarks in the greater Los Angeles area, buzzing the southern LAX runways at around 200 feet altitude twice before entering the landing pattern and touching down on Runway 25R at 12:51 pm Pacific time.

Wasting little time following welcoming ceremonies, the NASA and USA team went to work to remove the orbiter from the back of the SCA the night of the landing.

Originally there was some consideration given to performing the operation during daylight hours, but before the ferry Stilson said that during site preparation at LAX, the decision was to do the demate overnight.

“We’re right next to an active runway and it was very loud…so we pulled the trigger and moved operations to third shift; it will be much quieter, we’ve done it at night, [and] we know for sure the winds will be better.”

As with Enterprise earlier in the year in New York, Endeavour was not lowered to the ground on her landing gear; instead, the cranes moved the orbiter directly from the 747 and placed her on the modified overland transporter that will carry the spaceship from LAX to her new home. The transporter was then moved inside the United Airlines hangar for the remainder of the museum configuration work.

Inside the hangar, the team lowered the body flap to allow for removal of the ferry tailcone from Endeavour. They also repositioned the Replica Shuttle Main Engines, closed the vent doors, and raised the body flap again. Engine nozzles were attached to the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods, the crew compartment was reconfigured, and covers were placed over Endeavour’s windows to protect them during the move to the museum.

While that work was going on, NASA 905 made the final SCA flight, returning to Edwards and retirement at Dryden with a short, half-hour flight on the morning of September 24.

The aircraft will join the other SCA, NASA 911, as a parts donor for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) research aircraft, whose flight operations are based out of Dryden.

While NASA 911 was retired to a nearby Palmdale hangar in February, current plans call for NASA 905 to remain at Dryden.

The upcoming transport will be a first for Endeavour, which never made the approximately 40-mile overland trip from Palmdale to Edwards; when the Vandenberg Shuttle plans were cancelled in the post-Challenger accident period, the Orbiter Lifting Frame there was scavenged for use at Palmdale Airport, eliminating the need to transport orbiters to the previously nearest mating device at Dryden.

Now the California Science Center plans to end Endeavour’s career with an overland trip to get the retired spaceship from LAX to her new retirement home.

Rather than the newly-urbanized and not yet highly populated streets of the Antelope Valley in the early 1980s, Endeavour must be towed through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, the second most populous city in the United States, where clearances with urban infrastructure and historical landmarks will be much tighter than earlier overland transports.

And rather than sitting on a flatbed truck, the frame of the overland transporter is now attached to a system of four self-propelled modular transporters that will allow Endeavour to be moved much more precisely.

Early on the morning of October 12, Endeavour will begin a slow, twelve-mile long, two-day trip from the airport to the science center in Exposition Park.

“(With) regards to setting the path they’re going to take and all the things that have to happen in the community, they’ve had a lot of good support and help from the local communities in doing that, and that was a great task, a great undertaking because there are so many people involved, communities involved, and different parts of the government involved.” Stilson said.

“I think they’ve got everything laid out and I’m looking forward to seeing it move on the 12th.”

Ceremonies are planned along the way, with Endeavour’s arrival at her new home planned in the evening on October 13.

To read about the orbiters –  from birth, processing, every single mission, through to retirement, click here for the links:

(Images: Via L2 and NASASpaceFlight.com, Philip Sloss/NASASpaceflight.com, L2 Member “WheelsStop” for the in-air photos, L2 Historical and Nate Moeller, MaxQ Entertainment, 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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