The Endeavour Shuttle’s Final Flight into History
Updated May 20 — The space shuttle Endeavour lifted off Monday from Launch Pad 39A of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on its last flight into space, a 16-day mission to the International Space Station. But as historic as that is, it’s not necessarily the trip on Ken Phillips’ mind at the moment.
The California Science Center’s aerospace science curator is busy thinking about the trip that will follow in the next year and a half or so, the one that will bring Endeavour to Exposition Park. His team’s task: to turn the iconic space taxi into a public-friendly exhibit.
“We focused on two things,” Phillips said. “One was: if we were given an orbiter, what would we do with it to inspire science learning? Because that is literally our mission. Secondly, how do you create an experience that’s accessible to everyone?”
Two astronauts early on Friday performed a spacewalk outside the International Space Station, where the Endeavour has been docked, to inspect damage to the shuttle from the launch and to install particle detecting equipment. The shuttle damage appears to be minor.
NASA on April 12 announced that the Science Center had won the right to make the shuttle Endeavour one of its exhibitions. It’s one of three that are being donated to national museums. Atlantis will go to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida and Discovery goes to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Virginia. Enterprise, a prototype orbiter that did not fly in space, goes to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City. A total of 21 institutions competed to lure one of the shuttles to their campuses.
The Autry, too, has been starstruck in recent days. Skydreamers,the exhibition that opened April 29, looks at the story of flight and space exploration through the photographic and filmic lens.
There are pictures of the Apollo X rocket, as well as famous photos of the Gemini manned space program, which aimed to test human endurance in space conditions in preparation for flight to the moon. There’s a shot of the Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 rendezvous and a shot of Gemini 8′s approach to the Agena Target Vehicle, flying 200 miles above Earth.
Bringing a shuttle to town is not a task to take lightly. From the moment it returns from space, NASA workers will begin preparing Endeavour for its second life, removing equipment and potentially toxic substances from it. The process should take about a year and a half, Phillips said. Then the shuttle will be loaded onto its transporter plane and flown to LAX, where it becomes the Science Center’s responsibility.
Then the work begins on the “teaching science” part. Phillips said planners proposed displaying the shuttle vertically, as if it were getting ready to launch; horizontally, as if it had just landed; and with wings perpendicular to the ground, as if it were being viewed from above. That last option has not proved feasible for a variety of reasons. But Phillips’ dream is to let people see Endeavour from as many angles as possible.
“The idea was to create something that will allow somebody to instantly recognize the vehicle from a distance, to get a feeling of its scale, but then allow them to get up close and personal, so they feel like they’re going into it,” he said. All that, without allowing people to actually touch it.
When the space shuttle program first went online in April 1981, shuttles were predicted to last much longer than they have.
“Each of the orbiters was supposed to have a hundred-flight lifetime,” Phillips said. “Endeavour will go on its twenty-fifth flight when it launches.”
Counting today’s launch, the five working NASA space shuttles have flown 134 missions altogether. Discovery is the busiest, with 39 missions under its wing. When it was decommissioned in March, it had spent a total 365 Earth days, a full year, in space. Atlantis follows with 32 flights. Columbia, the first shuttle ever to go into space, was third with 28 flights. It was destroyed on reentry on February 1, 2003, killing all seven crew members. Endeavour is next, and finally Challenger, which flew nine missions before becoming the first shuttle to be destroyed, breaking apart in a horrific fireball 73 seconds after its tenth launch on January 28, 1986. That entire crew also died.
Phillips said he and his team at the Science Center have been mulling over how to properly recognize the two destroyed shuttles while also crafting an exhibit that compellingly describes the science involved in flying a reusable rocket into space.
“When you look at a lot of the memorial things that have been done for both the Columbia and the Challenger crews … they tend to memorialize crews and then those memorial statements are put off to the side,” Phillips said. “The question we’re wrestling with, and we would have to be very sensitive to the families, is whether or not we could integrate those stories into those parts of the orbiter that were the failure points.”
Although people have seen the different space shuttles countless times on television and on the Internet, there is value to seeing one in person, Phillips said, and being able, for example, to trace the actual char marks it acquired as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere.
“The idea is to take an artifact and, using maybe four or five basic science principles — not much more than that — help people reason from one point to the next about what it actually went through, the stesses that were on it,” Phillips said.
People can then understand the mechanical and thermal forces at work, or why the shuttle looks the way it does. Phillips envisions displaying one of the Apollo command modules near Endeavour, to allow people to compare the design aspects of each space vehicle. He said that the earlier vehicles had a real problem withstanding and managing the heat from the atmosphere. So in designing the shuttle, NASA engineers came up with the idea of spreading that heat over the widest possible area of the orbiter: what became its underside, then shielding it to allow the heat simply to burn at a controlled rate. The ceramic tiles that made that happen were a breakthrough technology developed to fix that problem.
“It was a brilliant solution,” Phillips said.
Acquiring the shuttle, though never a sure thing, was part of the Science Center’s 25-year plan to develop and build a Phase 3 addition to the museum.
“From about 1991, we had always envisioned an orbiter,” Phillips said, “We knew at some point they would retire the fleet. And so we sort of, in a very wishful-thinking way — this was 21 years ago — said, ‘Let’s design a building that could incorporate an orbiter, if we can get one, and we’ll make that kind of an iconic artifact in the Phase 3 part of the Science Center. So that had always been kind of in the back of our minds. “