Piggybacking atop a modified 747, NASA's retired space shuttle Endeavour soared into a cloudy Florida sky at dawn Wednesday—the start of its final journey.
Endeavour will chase the sun west over the next three days as it heads toward its own sunset at the California Science Museum (CSC) in Los Angeles.
Following a two-day weather delay, the liftoff from Kennedy Space Center marked the last time a space shuttle will fly over Florida and the final ferry flight of NASA's 30-year space shuttle program—and its unsung workhorse.
"It's a farewell not just to Endeavour, but also to the shuttle carrier aircraft as well," said Robert Pearlman, editor of the space history and artifacts website collectSPACE.com. (See "Inside the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.")
Endeavour's farewell-tour itinerary is anything but arbitrary.
"Given that they were flying over the southern parts of the United States, where many NASA centers are located, this was an opportunity to be able to salute each of those centers that made a contribution to the shuttle program," Pearlman said.
In fact, Endeavour will pass over all the NASA spaceflight centers that have played significant roles in the shuttle program except for Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, which would have required an expensive northern detour.
"The California Science Center is paying for this ferry flight. It's not NASA, and it's not taxpayer money," Pearlman said, "and each of these legs cost a significant amount of money."
The first of the legs came to a close late Wednesday morning, when the shuttle landed in Houston at Ellington Field, near NASA's Johnson Space Center, where the space agency trains its astronauts for shuttle flights and space missions.
Endeavour's California Roll
At sunup on Thursday, the carrier craft will fly Endeavour to El Paso, Texas, for a quick refueling stop before flying low over the White Sands Test Facility near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California—both of which served as backup space shuttle landing sites.
The shuttle's final final flight, on Friday, will include morning flyovers above California landmarks in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas as well as Disneyland, Griffith Observatory, and other Southern California sites.
After touching down at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) at around 11 a.m. PT, the orbiter will remain in a hangar while preparations are made for Endeavour's mid-October ground transfer to the CSC, via the streets of Inglewood and Los Angeles, where hundreds of trees have been controversially cut down for the shuttle parade.
Named after a ship commanded by 18th-century English explorer James Cook (hence the shuttle name's British spelling) Endeavour was the fifth and final NASA space shuttle to be constructed—a replacement for Challenger following that orbiter's deadly accident in 1986.
Endeavour first launched in 1992 and was known for its versatility. It has hauled satellites into orbit and was chosen for the critical Hubble servicing mission in 1993, which corrected the space telescope's faulty vision.
And being one of the lighter—and therefore more fuel efficient—space shuttles, Endeavour was often used to ferry the heaviest cargo into space. As the newest shuttle, Endeavour featured hardware not found in the other orbiters, including improved plumbing and electrical connections intended for longer missions as well as updated flight systems.
Upstanding Endeavour Getting Its Due
Upon arrival at LAX, Endeavour should look just as it did when it was on active duty—at least from the outside, Kenneth Phillips, curator of aerospace programs at the CSC, said in an email.
Inside, though, some parts have been removed, including the plumbing for the Endeavour's three main engines, which will be reused in other NASA flight programs, and parts containing toxic chemicals, such as the shuttle's internal tanks.
Most of the components from Endeavour's mid-deck—the living and research area, including galley and toilet—have also been removed but will be placed on display in a walk-through re-creation of the room in the future, Phillips said.
Several years from now, the youngest NASA orbiter will form the centerpiece of a new addition to the CSC, where Endeavour will eventually be hoisted upright.
For collectSpace.com's Pearlman, Endeavour's final flight inspires mixed emotions.
"Seeing this last ferry flight is another chapter being closed in what is the final volume of the space shuttle era," he said.
"In part, it's sad to see these vehicles being retired, because they were built to be flown for much higher flight rates than they ever achieved. But at the same time, the space historian in me is enjoying watching them go on display and attracting crowds ... It's great to watch them get the due they've always deserved."