Spaceflight Now

Kennedy Space Center bids final farewell to Endeavour

Posted: September 19, 2012

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Bound for Southern California where America's space shuttle fleet was born, the retired spaceship Endeavour left her homeport this morning atop a modified 747 carrier jet to become a tool of inspiration at a children's science museum in Los Angeles.

Credit: Walter Scriptunas II/Spaceflight Now
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The California Science Center, located in Exposition Park next to the LA Memorial Coliseum, was selected in the hotly-contested race to receive one of the space shuttles after the program was shut down last year.

Endeavour, the final orbiter built more than two decades ago and now a decommissioned museum piece, departed the Kennedy Space Center this morning atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft at 7:22 a.m. EDT after a two-day weather delay.

Initially heading towards the south, the flying duo buzzed the Space Coast beaches of Brevard County in a stirring farewell to the locals who saw Endeavour's spaceflight career spanning 25 missions, 122,883,151 miles, 4,677 orbits of the planet and 299 days aloft.

The aircraft then made a U-turn to travel up the river and perform a low-altitude pass above the Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Complex and the runway in a final goodbye to the ship's home since 1991.

"The best analogy I can use is one of a parent and a child because the way we took care of these vehicles is basically like caring for a child. We ensured they were protected as much as we we are to the point where we are releasing them from the nest, we're no longer going to have the ability to watch them 24/7," said Stephanie Stilson, the NASA manager in charge of shuttle retirement activities.

"It is little hard for us to let go. You'll see that with anybody who has been working on these vehicles as long as we have we don't want to let go. We sure don't. But it is good to know the people who are taking them are just as excited about taking care them, preserving them and showing them to public."

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Grounding the space shuttles was a national policy ordered by President George W. Bush on Jan. 14, 2004, a decision that called for flying only the minimum number of additional missions to finish constructing the International Space Station before retiring the spaceplanes.

The change in direction for the U.S. space program came in the wake of the Columbia tragedy, the second fatal accident for the shuttles. The remaining orbiters would conduct just 22 more flights after Columbia, completing the orbiting science laboratory and giving one last tuneup to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Bush Administration proposed a new capsule and rocket design that would come online a few years after the shuttle fleet stopped flying, automatically creating "a gap" in American access to space. But that turmoil has spiraled and the inability for the U.S. to launch its own people into space has grown even longer, extending NASA's reliance on Russia to ferry all crews to the station through at least 2017.

President Barack Obama terminated Bush's proposed follow-on system and turned to the private sector in hopes firms like Boeing, SpaceX or Sierra Nevada could develop the means to launch Americans again on a quicker timeline and for less money, but Congress has slashed recent funding for that concept and "the gap" goes on.

All that is certain with space program these days is the final resting places for the orbiters -- Discovery, Enterprise, Endeavour and Atlantis.

Endeavour's maiden voyage in May 1992 was a dramatic adventure to rescue the wayward Intelsat 603 telecommunications satellite that required the astronauts to improvise with the first-ever three-man spacewalk to manually grab the spacecraft after attempts using a specially-designed capture bar failed to work. The ship also conducted the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing in 1993, one of the stellar achievements for the space program that installed corrective optics to fix the observatory's flawed vision.

Other trips in the 1990s deployed and retrieved satellites, mapped the Earth with radar and scanned the cosmos with payloads carried in the orbiter's cargo bay. She also visited the Russian space station Mir once.

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Then Endeavour opened the International Space Station era by launching the first American piece of the outpost -- the Unity connecting node -- to begin orbital construction in December 1998. Subsequent flights by Endeavour would take up the station's initial solar array power tower, all three sections of Canada's robotics including the arm, mobile transporter and Dextre hands, the Japanese science facility's "attic" and "back porch" for research, and the Tranquility utility room with the Cupola.

The 12th and final mission to the International Space Station by Endeavour finished the American assembly efforts, which this ship originally began, by adding the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and a final spare parts deck.

Construction of Endeavour started in September 1987 as a replacement vehicle for Challenger. The spaceplane was rolled out of the Palmdale factory in April 1991. She became NASA's fifth and final operational space shuttle with her inaugural launch a year later.

Endeavour should arrive at the Los Angeles International Airport on Friday for unloading. A day-and-a-half procession through city streets is planned for Oct. 12 and 13 to reach the California Science Center. She will go on public display at the pavilion built in Exposition Park on Oct. 30.

Discovery was delivered to the National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in April and Enterprise was transported in June to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on the Hudson River in New York City

Atlantis is the final orbiter still undergoing the decommissioning ahead of her trip down the road to the KSC Visitor Complex on Nov. 2.