Watching Space Shuttle Endeavour glide by the Santa Monica Pier on the back of a 747 brought back a special memory.
I was present at Endeavour’s birth, its rollout on April 25, 1991. It was a bitingly cold, windy, day in Palmdale, when it left its womb, Rockwell’s assembly hangar, and its team of clever creators presented it to the world. Endeavour’s last flyby, on its way to touchdown at LAX, marked my 27th time to see a shuttle fly.
The other 26 occasions were as an Associated Press radio correspondent, reporting the return of various shuttles from space, as they made their dead-stick landings at Edwards Air Force Base, about a hundred air miles northeast of the pier.
Landing in Florida wasn’t considered a good option in the shuttle program’s early days, as Edwards’ 15,000-foot runway on a dry lake bed provided a better margin for error. There were questions about the shuttle’s brakes and other systems. Over time, the brakes and other components were improved and Endeavour, the last shuttle built, played a role in showing that the Kennedy Space Center could serve safely as the preferred landing site.
My first sight of an airborne shuttle was in November 1981, as Columbia, the first shuttle, ended its second mission—a flight of just two days.
Columbia announced itself with the twin sonic booms that were to become so familiar. I had to remind myself that the shuttle’s surprisingly steep drop from the sky, ending in a beautifully smooth slide, touchdown and long rollout, were being executed by what amounted to a big glider with no engine, with no way to abort the landing, power up and do a flyaround if anything went wrong.
It was 24 years later, August 2005, when I last reported on a shuttle landing, as Discovery touched down at Edwards.
Now, the Space Transportation System project, as the shuttle program was called, has ended, to the dismay of some. But the exploration it was part of continues, as Curiosity prowls around on Mars, and Voyager 1 leaves our solar system to carry its message of peace into interstellar space, and the International Space Station and its passengers continue orbiting the home planet.
In addition to the memories evoked, Endeavour’s flyby reminds me that, like its namesake ship that carried Captain Cook to new worlds, it has served us well in taking our small first steps to the stars.