Guest blog: STS-134 — the last mission of space shuttle Endeavour

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Wednesday, May 4, 2011

If we could, an Astronomy staff member would attend every shuttle launch down in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Unfortunately, that’s not in the budget, so we rely on friends of the magazine to represent us at such events. When we found out Brenda Culbertson, an observational astronomer, astrophotographer, and outreach educator from Kansas, was traveling to Kennedy Space Center to witness the final mission of the space shuttle Endeavour, we offered her press credentials to report on the launch. Although the scheduled go was scrubbed April 29, Culbertson provided us some great details of her trip so far.

Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building is the home of the space shuttle until its retirement later this year. // All photos by Brenda Culbertson
The last mission for the space shuttle Endeavour, STS-134, was scheduled for launch on April 29, 2011, at 3:42 p.m. EDT. I decided that if I was to witness a space shuttle launch, this would be it. Thanks to our friend David Eicher and his staff, I had a spot for a spectacular view of the launch, invitations to press conferences, and access to firsthand information when it was immediately available.

When I arrived on April 27, press from around the world were in attendance as the countdown clock ticked away. It seemed as if all of Kennedy Space Center (KSC) was standing room only throughout all of Thursday, April 28. I was not the only person covering Endeavour’s last mission, I knew, but I had no idea that I would be among such an assemblage of people.

This shelf cloud indicates the heavy storm that rolled through Florida April 27, delaying the roll-away of the Rocket Support System.
That evening at 7, the Rocket Support System (RSS) was scheduled to be rolled away. Media had the opportunity to be bussed to the pad for the viewing, but a lightning storm appeared, and we had to wait at least an hour. The storm was still in the area at 8 p.m., so we were told to check again at 10:30 p.m. Much of the media people left, but those who stayed were taken to the launch pad after 10:30. The RSS was scheduled to move starting at 11:45 p.m., and it began after midnight. The support structure took about half an hour to slowly pull away from the rocket. It was an amazing sight as about 50 photographers recorded the event. I was satisfied that I had seen a milestone after the spotlights were directed at the shuttle to highlight its readiness. We arrived back at the media area around 2 a.m. and told we should return there around 6 a.m. because the place would fill up fast. A short, sleepless night was in store for me.

On Friday, the energy was high. Reporters, film crews, technicians, and other media people flowed into the press area at KSC. The place was packed and security was top notch. Everyone was ready for the last launch of space shuttle Endeavour, but there was more to do, and we could not be in a rush. For those of us who went to record the Astronaut Walkout from their building to their transport, we were in for a long trip. It took about 30 minutes to travel a mile.

Many media outlets were on hand to witness space shuttle Endeavor's final launch.
Some entrances to KSC are in the city of Titusville, and traffic was crawling. Titusville dismissed its students after half a day, and some employers allowed their employees to leave for the day. The shuttle launch takes precedence over even regular daily tasks in the area. The causeway was packed with onlookers, and every available space around KSC was taken. I have never seen such a huge gathering of people.

On the way back from the Astronaut Walkout, I was going over my plans for photographing the launch when I heard that it was scrubbed. I asked the tour guide to repeat what she just said, but it did not change from what I heard the first time. Scrubbed. She said that more information would be given soon.

On Saturday, an announcement came that the next attempt would be no sooner than Monday, May 2. A press conference would be held to update us on the 1st as to why the launch was delayed. At the press conference, we learned that an electrical box had a problem, and a fuel line heater was not working properly because of it. The engineers would have to take the box out and examine it. As the engineers did their work, they found that they had to replace the box and retest the whole system. This would take time, so the launch was set back to be no sooner than Sunday, May 8. Endeavour’s astronauts were sent back to Houston to stay in quarantine and to rest or practice their tasks.

All of the staff who work on the shuttle were busy replacing the electrical box and checking systems. After replacing the electrical box, engineers said that the launch would be no sooner than Tuesday, May 10. The extra time would allow a more thorough examination of all systems on Endeavour.

After each delay, more and more people went away disappointed. Some of the discontentment I heard involved comments such as, “Why didn’t they check all of that out before the launch time?” and “I took vacation to come and watch the launch.” I understand disappointment, but I sure wouldn’t want Endeavour to launch with anything faulty.

I am keeping myself available as long as I can to cover the whole STS-134 mission, but if it is postponed much longer, I, too, will have to leave without recording the last Endeavour mission. But I am not disappointed. There is much more to a mission than just the launch, no matter how fantastic that might be. I have seen how the system, as a whole, works. From the astronauts to the media people and on to the volunteers, without whom things would not operate effectively, Kennedy Space Center is a smooth-working entity. It is much like a shuttle launch that flies safely into space because of all the hard work by everyone involved.

I hope I see at least the launch in person, but if I don’t, there is still NASA TV.

Related blog:
NASA: Please keep delaying STS-134, by Chris Raymond, managing editor

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.
Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.


Receive news, sky-event information, observing tips, and more from Astronomy's weekly email newsletter. View our Privacy Policy.

Find us on Facebook