Mountain View, CA. (Sept. 12, 2012) — Twenty-five missions, 299 days in orbit and circling earth 4,671 times while logging 122,833,151 miles. But Friday, a few last hours of flight navigating the spine of California’s Central Valley to the Bay Area represented the last remaining flight time for the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
Shortly after take off from Edwards Air Force Base, the Endeavour, strapped atop a modified NASA Boeing 747 airliner, passed over the state capitol in Sacramento and then headed to San Francisco. At around 3,000 feet, piggy-backed Endeavour passed over the Chabot Science Museum, darted across the East Bay and University of California, Berkeley, before dazzling thousands as it descended over the San Francisco Bay, and not once, but twice, crested the International Orange twin spires of the Golden Gate Bridge amidst a chorus of chattering camera shutters.
Meanwhile, 20,000 people gathered along the tarmac at Moffett Field’s Ames Research Center, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the shuttle’s historic flight. Endeavour had never flown over Northern California. This was a respectful nod to the engineers and researchers who have worked at Ames since the inception of the Shuttle program. Various diplomats, VIPs, and astronomy and science personnel were on hand to talk to the crowd and answer questions related to space shuttles and travel. Former astronaut Stephen Robinson, who traveled aboard Endeavour four times, proclaimed “It’s about the coolest thing you will ever see!”
Despite anticipating a low flyover at about 200 feet across the Moffett Field Runway, the anxious crowd grasping to sight the massive plane was delighted when the Shuttle appeared over the looming steel skeleton of Hangar One. Thousands spun around and the delighted crowd cheered while snapping photos of the 500-foot flyover.
Just as quickly as it arrived, Endeavour and its escort jet were gone, just a tiny fleeting speck disappearing and banking over the Santa Cruz mountains, where it headed to Monterey and eventually, its destination at LAX. The flight, capping off a three-day journey from Florida to Los Angeles, signifies the official end of the shuttle program and a transition to commercial space flight.
It represented a historic and bittersweet moment for thousands across the country, where space flight has held such a memorable and visual moment in people’s lives from the Kennedy administration, the Challenger disaster and today’s aerial retirement journey. Endeavour, one of five shuttles built for missions since the early 1980s is only one of three to survive. All shuttles were named after ships of discovery, the Endeavour paying homage to James Cook’s HMS Endeavour and its famous first journey of discovery launched by the British Royal Navy in 1769. Today, the Atlantis has a permanent home at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Discovery, which treated the Eastern Seaboard with a similarly dazzling flyover, has its retirement home at the Smithsonian Center in Virginia.
Endeavour, whose maiden voyage was in 1992 and final mission in 2011, will spend its remaining days welcoming visitors at the California Space Center. It was greeted by throngs of photographers during it landing at LAX, and was escorted to a hangar will crews will begin removing the 155,000 pound shuttle in preparation for its transport to its new home.