A massive crowd gathered on the tarmac at Moffett Federal Airfield Friday morning to watch the historic last flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour as it was ferried to a museum in Los Angeles.
After causing traffic jams on U.S. Highway 101 as it flew down the Peninsula perched atop a specially modified jumbo jet, Endeavour made its appearance at 10:37 a.m., turning in from the Bay and aimed at Moffett's historic Hangar One, which briefly blocked the crowd's view. Flying little more than 200 feet above NASA Ames Research Center, it then flew south over Mountain View and into the horizon to end its 123-million-mile journey, having orbited the earth 4,671 times over two decades.
Over NASA Ames, the shuttle flew near the the wind tunnel complex where 90 percent of its aerodynamic research went on, the vertical flight simulator where every one of its astronauts has trained, where a supercomputer calculated how much ice buildup on its tanks was safe, and the laboratories where its heat-resistant tiles were invented, which kept the shuttle and its pilots from burning upon re-entry into the atmosphere. Tiles "for which I am very thankful," said Stephen K. Robertson, an astronaut who flew Endeavour to the International Space Station in 2010.
When its rocket boosters light, it's "like being rear ended at a traffic light, a big jolt and then you are off into the sky," Robertson said. On the 2010 launch "We went into a cloud layer lit up like the fourth of July...the most spectacular I've witnessed."
The space shuttle "really captures your imagination," said Jason Aramante, a young tech worker who said his interest in technology may have begun as a child, "reading, writing and drawing " the shuttle.
"Perhaps one of the students here today will recall this moment of watching the space shuttle Endeavour pass overhead when he or she steps foot on Mars in the 2030s," said Ames director Pete Worden. He added that "We can't talk about that program, it's classified," drawing laughs.
"I want to emphasize that NASA is alive and well," Worden said. "We are on our way into the solar system. We are going to be going around the moon in the next decade, we are going to an asteroid and then we are going to Mars. This journey is just beginning."
Retired Air Force officer Donald Covey said that seeing the Space Shuttle was on his "bucket list" along with seeing the Great Wall of China and Egypt's pyramids. "Seeing the shuttle, it's pretty spectacular," Covey said. "They probably ended the space shuttle program a little too early."
Also nostalgic was Diane Davis, who recalled attending a space shuttle launch in which she could feel "internally" the "amazing force" of its rocket boosters. She brought her elementary school-aged kids to the event so they could say one day that 'I remember when my mom took me to see the space shuttle.'"
Information booths provided educational materials to event-goers, including a list of inventions that came from the space shuttle program, such as an artificial human heart that uses the shuttle's fuel pump technology and light-emitting-diode technology developed in space shuttle experiments that may soon be used to kill cancerous tumors.
"It shows what people can accomplish when people put their heart into it," Robertson said of the shuttle program.
Following its Bay Area visit, the shuttle was set to pass over the Monterey Peninsula and near San Luis Obispo before landing at Los Angeles International Airport around noon.
Named for the first ship commanded by 18th-century British explorer James Cook, the Endeavour first went into space in 1992 and was decommissioned by NASA last year. It was built to replace Challenger, the space shuttle which exploded shortly after a launch in 1986, killing seven astronauts.
Endeavour will eventually end up in Southern California at the California Science Museum in Los Angeles at a display opening on Oct. 30.