By: Allan Ko
“Wait, wait, quiet—listen!” We fell silent as the music on the radio faded out and the DJs began discussing Endeavour’s flyover of the Bay Area on its way to its future home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. News Editor Nihar Parikh and Graphics Editor Angie Wang were with me on the morning of September 21, following Smoke Signal Advisor Sandra Cohen to Van’s Restaurant on the Hill in Belmont (near San Mateo) in hopes of getting a glimpse of Endeavour’s final flight, the last time a space shuttle would ever be airborne.
“So hear me out,” said a male voice. “The space shuttle’s sort of like an airplane, right? So what I don’t get is, why can’t it just fly itself to SoCal? Why does it need to be flown by another airplane?”
We collectively groaned as a second voice, evidently baffled, expressed agreement and the explanation of “maybe they didn’t want to wear it out.” The shuttle has no jet engines, and uses its wings only for gliding during landings. Using its rocket engines during its flyover would be not only noisy, but also difficult to control and terribly inefficient.
It was nevertheless heartening that everyone in the Bay was seemingly as excited as we for this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see an actual NASA space shuttle piggybacking on a modified Boeing 747. As we drove up to the restaurant parking lot, we passed a row of similarly expeditious people armed with binoculars and cameras, scanning the skies and checking their phones for updates on Endeavour’s flight path.
The four of us headed up to the second floor of the restaurant and set ourselves up with two Nikon D-SLR cameras, three lenses, two pairs of binoculars, and a laptop. We opened all the windows, set up our cameras, and scanned the panoramic view of the Bay, wondering about possible flight paths and Googling up-to-the-minute news updates to get a sense of when the shuttle would fly over. We knew that it had circled the Golden Gate Bridge about an hour ago, and that it was headed towards Moffett Field at Ames Research Center, but the exact flight path had not been released. Mrs. Cohen even called the newsroom of the San Jose Mercury News only to learn that the flight had taken a turn over the peninsula somewhere south of the San Mateo bridge.
After a number of false alarms from commercial airplanes, the people gathered in the parking lot below started pointing excitedly towards the northern horizon. “I think that’s it,” someone said. “Where?” said someone else. “There—no, there! Look, look, look, do you see the white dot?” Angie and I aimed our cameras and captured exactly three shots before we realized that the airplane was turning and flying northwest—away from the restaurant. We lowered our cameras and examined our shots. All of them consisted of blurry, distant images of an indistinct white smudge, barely identifiable as the space shuttle.
We were about to give up when we realized the shuttle would have to turn around at some point and loop back in order to make it to Moffett Field, and a few minutes later, it came into view again, headed almost directly towards our vantage point. Prepared, we aimed our viewfinders and held down the shutter, taking as many pictures as we could through the tree and the power lines that blocked our otherwise clear view of Endeavour. Leaning over each other out of the windows, we followed the shuttle with our cameras as it came closer, and closer, finally disappearing around the side of the hill. We scrambled over to the other side of the restaurant, dodging chairs and tables in hopes of catching a few more shots as Endeavour emerged on the other side, but when it did, it was already off in the distance, fading into the southern horizon.
As we reviewed our pictures, our hopes weren’t too high; the power lines and the tree had proven bothersome obstacles and we weren’t sure our lenses had been powerful enough for a clear image. After a few minutes of browsing, we found the perfect shot: the shuttle on top of its carrier, centered exactly between two power lines in front of an azure, cloudless sky.
Loath to return to the relative mundanity of school after having witnessing the historical finale of a 30-year space program, an enduring symbol of human ingenuity and international cooperation, we grudgingly packed up our supplies and piled back into the car.
“Not bad, guys, not bad,” we said to each other as we headed onto the highway. “It’ll make a great front page.”