Endeavour No More

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.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. I’m trying to find the “parade route” that Endeavour will take through the streets of LA. It would fun to watch it move slowly past (1 mile an hour, one report said). Then I would have seen one shuttle at take-off and another at its final landing.

  2. I saw it as it buzzed JSC outside of Houston. (It stopped for the day at Ellington Air Force base).

    The Shuttle was, in many ways, an example of people reaching — perhaps too far. The materials needed to make the Shuttle the way it was initially concieved didn’t exist in the 70s when they were designing it.

    They don’t exist now, really. Materials that can take the heat and cold can’t take the vibrations of launch, those that can take the vibration can’t take the heat (or transfer it too effectively). I work with materials engineers for a living — even now, they can’t really come up with anything much better than the tile system, for all it’s flaws. (Except ablative heat shields, the technology of the initial capsules that NASA has returned to. Simple and hard to screw up).

    I toured the launch pad once. Stared down into the blast pit 300 feet below. Did you know they drop a water-tower’s worth of water into the blast pit at launch? Not because of heat — but to muffle the shockwave. Ignition of the main engine and boosters is so loud, the sound reflects off the blast pit — the first launch didn’t dump water, and the shuttle veered and yawed on launch because of it. In fact, under the wrong circumstances, the sonic shockwave is strong enough to cause outright physical damage — not just shove 120 tons of spacecraft off course.

    There are wooden poles in front of instrument clusters — basically telephone poles shoved into the ground around the launchpad. It’s to take the initial blast wave, that physical wall of sound and heat, and shatter from it — protecting the instruments behind them.

    The shuttle itself? A terrible glider — horrible, about as bad a shape as you can get short of an outright brick. Why? Because any other shape built up stress and heat on re-entry so bad the thing shattered or melted apart. Hitting even the wispy edges of the atmosphere at Mach 25 is hard on things.

    There is nothing like physically experiencing a launch. Feeling your bones vibrate, the insanely loud roar like you’re standing next to the biggest subwoofers and speakers at an AC/DC concert — and realizing you’re six miles away from the source.

    It’s little things like that remind you that even though we’ve been doing it for almost 70 years now, each and every person we send into space is still a test pilot. The sheer, ridiculous amount of force and power that has to be harnessed to throw something into orbit (or bring it back down) is almost impossible to convey without being there to see it, to feel it.

    • These are some of the things I’m talking about. The technical challenge of stabilization with the deep pool of water, the search for the right materials. We’ve learned stuff from our experience with the Shuttle, stuff we’d never have learned any other way. That’s why we have to keep up with it and keep on learning new things.

  3. Video up over at MD. It’s not great, but the camera in the phone can’t do telephoto video well.

  4. If you’re reading this on a smart phone, that’s partly because of work done by Endeavour and her crew.

    You want to expand on that? In all my years in the industry, mobile phones, dumb and smart, are almost entirely terrestrial in nature. Much more likely that if you’re reading it on a smart phone, it’s running on the glut of fiber put into the ground in the 1990s. TCP/IP doesn’t mix all that well with satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

    • GPS satellites are not terrestrial and your smart phone knows where you are because of them. Neither are weather satellites upon which forecasts are based.

      No, I don’t know specifically if Endeavour launched or serviced GPS beacons or weather satellites. I hope you take my point, though.

    • The Shuttle launched the TDRS satellites and quite a few other interesting payloads. AFAICD the Shuttle carried no smartphone-related birds, or even any GPS satellites.

      The Shuttle was obsolete on the day it was launched. The sovereign equation which governs any space launch system is the cost of putting a kilo of payload on orbit. STS never made the grade: it cost too much. The STS itself came in far over budget.

      Nonetheless, I’m glad STS was built: the Hubble Space Telescope and the five repair missions have given humanity a new window on the universe.

      The most useful component of STS was never built, well, it sorta was — a component which would have lifted a payload to geosynchronous orbit, where the money is. We’ll continue to need such a vehicle and we still don’t have it.

      God bless the STS and all who worked on it and those who crewed those ships. I’m discouraged by NASA’s rate of progress on manned space flight but I’m not sure humans are a better solution than the machines we’re sending to space.

  5. What point? GPS was and continues to be a military undertaking (a conceptual successor to the Navy’s Transit system, which used five satellites in orbit by 1960) that civilians are allowed to use. GPS satellites have all been put in orbit using expendable non-human-rated lifters. Almost all weather satellites were placed in orbit using those same lifters. All of the recent Mars missions were launched using expendable lifters. The shuttle simply flew too infrequently to ever be a major workhorse for things that didn’t involve putting people in orbit. From 1995 on, the vast majority of shuttle missions were to Mir or the ISS.

    Smart phone technology and cellular network development and deployment have nothing to do with the shuttle. I’m not belittling any of the three technologies, just the non-existent linkage you made.

    • Fine. What tribute would you make to Endeavour, her sister shuttles, and their crews?

      • With absolutely no disrespect to the engineers who designed/built the shuttles, and the crews that flew them, in hindsight the shuttle was largely a failure. I’m old enough to remember the initial claims about what the shuttle would be: a space-going pick-up truck that would deliver on the need for a low-cost way to low earth orbit; the ability to pick up damaged or otherwise non-functioning satellites so they could be refurbished and reorbited; room to work on satellites, or at least to take enough to tools to work on them in space if they could be fixed up there. The Hubble telescope repairs proved that it could be done, but at a price that made it cheaper in most cases to simply build and launch a replacement.

        Some of this is just my unhappiness with NASA. By the end of the Apollo series, it was absolutely clear that the big obstacle for a manned space program, and for many of the unmanned missions, was the lack of an inexpensive way to put big masses into LEO. Forty years on, and after spending large amounts of money, they appear to have made little if any progress on that problem.

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