Space Shuttle Endeavour arrived safely and to a huge welcome at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, September 21, 2012.
Since it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of seeing a space shuttle soar overhead on top of a modified 747 (aka SCA = shuttle carrier aircraft) let's take a look at a rare photograph first. Below is Endeavour in her full splendor docked to the completed International Space Station during her last mission to space. Italian Astronaut Paulo Nespoli snapped this picture on May 23, 2011 from a Soyuz capsule. While there are a number of photos showing parts of shuttles photographed from inside the ISS, this is the only picture showing all of Endeavour docked to the completed ISS. This picture shows her doing what she was made for: Spaceflight. Building and servicing the International Space Station. An amazing machine that gave us the ability to construct a human outpost in orbit. Endeavour may be ready for retirement now and I can't wait to visit her at her new home at the California Science Center. I'm sure she will be breathtaking.
But to me she was never more magnificent than doing what she did best - In Space.
I arrived at the location at 10:30 a.m, as planned, for a shuttle landing time of 11 a.m., just as I learned that landing time had been postponed to 12:45 p.m. Aviation Blvd. is not one of those quaint, picturesque L.A. streets. It's a major four-lane airport access road and the ambiance is razor wire fence-industrial. The "sidewalk" is a narrow strip of gravel. (Note: If you ever find yourself stranded on a narrow strip of gravel for a long wait, do so with a Southwest flight attendant who has a carry-on. They have everything you need in that bag for hot, dusty, historic space events!)
When I arrived, the crowd was still relatively thin. I settled in for a 2+ hour wait. Twitter dropped in and out of being accessible during that time so my #spottheshuttle tweets from the location are a bit... spotty.
As I have found to be the case at all space events, nothing is easier than striking up a conversation with strangers. I met two flight attendants from Southwest Air, one who had come from Minneapolis, the other Las Vegas. I met an engineer who had worked on Endeavour's SSMEs. A mother who had brought her kid to see the shuttle; they had been waiting since 6 a.m. Two film students with professional equipment who planned to get footage of the landing and use it in their film project this semester, and many more. As a bonus, I got a ferocious sunburn despite SPF50. No matter.
By noon, the crowd had grown considerably and was now clustered along Aviation Blvd. in both directions as far as anyone could see. The cops amused us trying to contain everybody on the gravel strip, keeping them out of the bike path and street. This was a doomed effort. The bike path was ours. During the shuttle's final landing approach, the cops caved in, stopped traffic and let us take the street. That is when the long, dusty, brutally hot wait paid off. This is what we saw - no zoom, no filters, a glorious moment:
You don't see this every day: Angelenos stop and get out of their cars along a busy airport access road to get a better look at History in the Making.