Special Report: Endeavour’s last journey

The space shuttle Endeavour's journey of 198 million kilometres ended on a sunlit afternoon in October, when it rolled into its final resting place at the California Science Centre in Los Angeles.

The youngest member of NASA's now-retired space shuttle fleet, the 20-year-old giant is named after the exploration vessel H.M.S. Endeavour, which was commanded by Britain's James Cook on his epic 18th-century voyage of discovery in the South Pacific.

Endeavour’s 2012 voyage may have been a little more predictable than Cook’s journey into the unknown, but it turned out to be just as epic. Belgian transport giant, Sarens Group, took charge of the project, scrutinised by a global audience who bid the legendary space ship farewell. 

But what does it take to move a high-tech aircraft? What’s the key to meeting such a highly specific transport task? According to Jim Hennessy, Marketing Manager of Sarens North America, it’s a blend of experience, preparation – and high-end equipment. “The Endeavour’s “final mission” is the result of months of meticulous planning by our engineers in collaboration with multitude of public and private entities,” he says, pointing out that size was not the only difficulty.

“The shuttle weighs 68 tonnes, has a wingspan of 24 metres tip to tip, is 38m long and measures 17 metres from the ground to the tip of the tail. This may not be the largest or heaviest object we have transported before, but it is certainly one of the most important in our company’s history. The Endeavour is a national treasure and we are honoured to play a key role in its final mission.”

Some 1,000 police officers and more than 200 fire-fighters were on the scene when Sarens’ “most valuable cargo to date” made its final trip through the streets of Los Angeles on the back of a self-propelled mobile transporter (SPMT) built by German specialist, KAMAG. Capable of turning the shuttle in every direction, the SPMT helped the big white bird to zigzag its way around a range of obstacles on the road to retirement.

It took more than two days for the shuttle to inch its way across the 19 kilometres from the Los Angeles International Airport to the science centre, navigating around trees and light poles along the narrow path.

According to Hennessy, the key challenge was ensuring that Endeavour would remain unscathed, as it is a highly fragile piece of equipment despite the enormous mass and size. Accustomed to reaching speeds of up to 28 000 kph in space, the SPMT therefore moved at a crawling three kph to ensure maximum protection of what has become a national symbol of the US.

Comprising two four-axle units at the front and two six-axle units at the rear which were synchronously steered, the 2.43-metre wide SPMTs ensured precision manoeuvrability and stability while moving the shuttle along the densely populated route.

“The SPMTs are controlled and steered as a single vehicle by a person walking alongside the shuttle using a remote joystick control panel,” says Hennessy. “Additional spotters have been positioned near the nose, tail and wingtips to enable precision manoeuvrability near potential obstructions such as buildings, poles and trees. This is the first and most likely the only time that a space shuttle has or will be transported through an urban environment.”

In preparation for its transport, several high-voltage transmission lines were either removed or repositioned along with hundreds of streetlights, signs, traffic signals and identified obstacles. During the actual convoy, Sarens’ specialists ensured the SPMT, which weighed in at some 80 tonnes including the valuable freight, didn't stress underground water and sewer systems. Crews laid 2,700 steel plates on parts of the route.

According to KAMAG, the Endevaour mission was not the first time German-built SPMTs have been used to freight NASA equipment. KAMAG equipment has been in use for over 15 years to transport highly sensitive rocket motors, tanks and satellites, which is a challenge considering it not only has to cart freight that is literally out of this world, but also comply with the strict regulations of American space authority, NASA.

Now, after 25 space missions in a straining 22-year career, Endeavour will be parked in a display pavilion built just for the shuttle. During its service life, it has been in space for 299 days, flown 25 missions, travelled 123,000,000 miles and circled the earth 4671 times, according to CNN.

CNN also reported that the museum's foundation raised more than $10 million (€7.9 million) to fund the transportation of the shuttle to the centre. It’s now halfway toward its goal of raising $200 million to support the exhibit that opened on October 30.

For now, the museum will display the shuttle horizontally in the pavilion while it builds a new addition to its facility, the Air and Space Centre. When the centre opens in 2017, the shuttle will be on display in the vertical launch position, just like it was when awaiting lift-off from Kennedy Space Centre’s launch pad – majestic in appearance, intricate in design, and infinite in the possibilities they offered mankind in the exploration of our universe.

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