Houston, spurned in its bid to provide a permanent home for the display of a retired shuttle orbiter, opened its arms to Endeavour Wednesday for an overnight stopover on the winged spacecraft’s ferry flight from ’s to Los Angeles International Airport.
Endeavour, bolted atop ashuttle carrier aircraft, settled onto the runway at Ellington Field, near NASA’s , at mid-morning.
Hundreds of onlookers gathered close to the flight line — many of them allowed to leave their NASA jobs and joined by members of the public and eager students — to await a close-up look at the flying duo. For those who could not be present, there were ample opportunities to witness the spectacle of Endeavour as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) swooped low over downtown Houston, the city’s major airports and other regional landmarks.
Local news media offered live shots as well, further evidence of Houston’s deep ties to NASA’s shuttle fleet, which was retired in mid-2011 after a 135-mission, 30-year run. Regional leaders lost out to Washington D.C., New York City, Los Angeles and Titusville, Fla., in the competition to provide a public post-retirement display venue for one of the shuttles.
The hop from Kennedy to Ellington, considered bittersweet by many in Houston, was delayed for two days by a cool front that brought stormy weather along NASA’s Gulf Coast flight course. Houston’s fall-like weather turned the mood positive.
“It’s the end of a great chapter in human spaceflight,” said NASA astronaut Clay Anderson as he surveyed the turnout. “Now it’s time here in Houston for us to look to the future. Our goal is to be the pre-eminent spacefaring nation in the world.”
The SCA/Endeavour circled Central Florida at low altitude, following a departure from Kennedy at 7:22 a.m. EDT. The SCA circled over Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Patrick AFB and Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility before climbing out on the 4.5-hr. flight to Houston.
En route, the SCA swooped low over NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, wheremanufactured the shuttle’s external fuel tanks, before heading to Ellington, a former Air Force base that counts NASA’s T-38 fleet and atmospheric research aircraft as tenants.
Along the way, SCA chief pilot Jeff Moultrie and his crew could see the crowds gazing up. “A lot of people filled the grounds at Stennis and Michoud, lined up along Lake Ponchatrain; there were lots of people in downtown Houston,” Moultrie said. “We are happy to at least give them a chance to look at the vehicle one last time.”
Weather permitting, the SCA will depart Houston early Thursday for a refueling stop at Biggs Army Airfield in El Paso, Texas. A low pass over White Sands, N.M., host to a shuttle runway, is planned as the carrier aircraft makes its way to Edwards AFB, Calif., for an overnight stay at Dryden Flight Research Center.
Early Friday, Endeavour is scheduled to take flight for a final time atop the SCA, circling low over the San Francisco and Sacramento, Calif., areas before touching down at LAX at about 11 a.m. PDT. Endeavour will be trucked through the streets of Los Angeles to its final home, the California Science Center, arriving on Oct. 13. It is scheduled to go on public display Oct. 30.
Endeavour, manufactured by Rockwell International (now), rolled off the assembly line at Palmdale, Calif., in 1991. The fifth and final orbiter replaced Challenger, which was lost in a fatal 1986 launch explosion.
Atlantis will complete NASA orbiter retirement deliveries as it rolls to the Kennedy Visitor Center Complex in October.
The SCA will move on as well after 227 flights transporting orbiters over more than three decades. The highly modified 747 will be transferred to NASA’s Sofia (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) flying observatory program.