My drive to work this morning looked very strange. Lots of cars parked in the desert, people getting out and standing around. With cameras.
About halfway between my house and my office, I saw it. It looked like a very large airplane taking off from the Air Force Assembly Plant — the runway is actually almost a straight continuation of the road I drive to get to the office, so planes frequently look like they are taking off directly at me while I drive to work.
This plane was different. It looked tall, and heavy. It was the specially fitted 747 carrying the Space Shuttle Endeavour on her final flight. Against a geometer’s cartesian fantasy backdrop of thin white contrails against the brilliant blue desert sky of the end of summer, this awkward looking assembly of a spacecraft mated to an aircraft, accompanied by a spotter jet, slowly climbed into the sky and traced a ten-mile arc to the north, while about a hundred pulled-over spectators on either side of my usually-unremarkable road through the exurban desert frantically clicked all the photographs they could.
This will be Endeavour’s last flight. She first took off in 1992 and last landed in June of 2011, under the command of USN Captain Mark Kelly (a man made more famous, unfortunately, for nearly losing his prominent and equally remarkable wife). Endeavour completed a total of twenty-five missions in her career. Today’s assissted flight will see her fly by many sites of interest to the aviation industry and populated regions so the people can see her in the sky one last time, and then she will land at Los Angeles International Airport. From there, she will be towed to the California Science Center in Los Angeles’ Exposition Park, near the main campus of the University of Southern California.
She will then join her surviving sisters — Columbia and Challenger, of course, did not make it. Still the crews flew, cognizant of the risks. Endeavour’s oldest sister, the prototype and atmospheric test craft Enterprise, is on display at the USS Intrepid in New York City. Discovery, the most-travelled Shuttle, is part of the collection of spacecraft at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Atlantis stayed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, from whence she and her sister craft launched and played an integral role in creating the satellite-based communications network taken for granted by cell phone users all over the world. If you’re reading this on a smart phone, that’s partly because of work done by Endeavour and her crew.
The flight I witnessed at takeoff today is the last time any of these craft will be off the ground. I can hope that, while we face difficult fiscal challenges as a nation, we do not forget that the development and deployment of the next generation of spacecraft, to replace these retired vehicles, represents a significant portion of our future prosperity, science, and aspirations as a nation. We ought not to shirk the need to invest in our future simply because there is a delay between the time of spending the money and the realization of the result — or the uncertainty of what that result will look like. Endeavour’s children will carry our own children to the stars.
As for the craft herself, may her retirement serve as an inspiration to the men and women, and especially the girls and boys, who go to visit her in her final home. Let them see and touch this extraordinary vessel that broke away from the Earth and showed the door to the unimaginably greater universe above; let them look from Endeavour’s display to the skies and the stars… and dream of what might be.