A little over thirteen years ago, I embarked on a cross-country trip with one of my college buddies. I’ll elaborate more on the trip in another post, but the pertinent part of that story is that we happened to be in Florida in late May, 2000.
We’d originally planned to see certain sights along the way, but by the time we reached the east coast we had grown quite good at adding extra stops to the itinerary. When we stopped in Orlando, we quickly added a trip to the Kennedy Space Center, as we are both great fans of NASA. While we were there, we learned that in a few days a shuttle (Atlantis) was going to launch, so we quickly rearranged the next leg of our trip so that we could be back in the area and then purchased tickets.
Since it was an early AM launch window, they let us into the main building of the space center just before three in the morning. Most of the exhibits were open and since the only people there were the ones going to see the launch, there were no crowds. We’d spent most of our previous visit in the other buildings on site, so it was quite a treat to wander around uninhibited. One of the theaters that usually shows documentary style films was showing live video of the close out crew getting the astronauts into the shuttle while a staff person up in front answered questions from the dozen or so people in the audience. I remember sitting in that room for some time, intently watching the video and enjoying every minute.
When the time came for us to head out to the launch site, we loaded into shuttles that took us out to where NASA Parkway East crosses the Banana River. The causeway over the river is the closest the public can get to a shuttle launch at just over six miles away. We waited out there for about two hours before the final nine minute countdown began, and when the clock struck zero it lifted off, almost effortlessly. From our vantage point it was silent until a few seconds later when the shock wave rolled across the water and hit us. It was an experience like none other.
Shortly before the shuttle program ended a couple years ago, NASA announced which museums around the country would receive a retired orbiter and we were lucky enough to get the Endeavour for the California Science Center.
Over the holiday break, I was able to visit it with my family. It’s on display in a purpose-built hanger while they work on a permanent home. It was great to see it up close, but the hanger and the pre-exhibit room were packed with holiday crowds.
Then, this past week, I was able to return for a second visit with another college friend and his family. This time, there were only a few schoolchildren to maneuver around while looking up at the orbiter. While my friend and his family wandered around, I was able to just sit and study the vehicle itself.
When I saw it thirteen years ago, it was a speck on the horizon. This time it was so big that I couldn’t take it all in at once. I noticed where the black heat tiles begin and the other locations (beside the underbelly) where they’ve been placed. I could appreciate the enormity of the engine nozzles at the back and the texture of the thermal blankets that cover most of the top half. I counted the maneuvering thrusters on the nose and tail and could see the backwards flag on the right side. Again, it was an experience like none other.
There’s a lot to learn about the shuttle program and about Endeavour in particular. For instance, I learned that the reason for Endeavour’s British spelling is that it was named for the HMS Endeavour, the ship that Captain Cook explored Australia and New Zealand with. Also, I learned that Endeavour was built as the replacement for Challenger, and 22 years after the Challenger disaster it was Endeavour who took the first teacher into space.
If you’re in the LA area and are a fan of space flight, then don’t miss seeing the Endeavour. I’ll definitely be going back.