WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE — Space shuttle Endeavour graced the skies of southern New Mexico Thursday, dazzling spectators in its wake as it made its final flight to a California museum.
The shuttle, riding piggy-back on a specially-outfitted 747, landed at Edwards Air Force Base outside Los Angeles after a cross-country trip that began in Florida, with stops in Houston and El Paso, before lazily zig-zagging its way across the New Mexico landscape.
At an altitude of about 1,500 feet above ground, Endeavour and the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) it was mounted on flew over White Sands Missile Range and White Sands Test Facility before gliding across Las Cruces. At WSMR, the shuttle flew low enough people could see the markings on the spacecraft, and it and the SCA created a brief-but-interesting brief eclipse of the sun.
“Everybody was out. That made it an even more exciting event,” said Kosha Serna-Perez, a pre-kindergarten program teacher at WSMR. “This is the kind of event you can tell your grandkids and great-grandkids about.”
As a loudspeaker alerted people at WSMR of the shuttle’s arrival, people poured out of buildings to catch a glimpse. Hundreds of WSMR employees rushed out of their offices just in time to see the shuttle pass over one last time.
“We were flooded with calls from people,” said Ron Smith, a WSMR employee who has worked there since 1976. “It reminded me of (March) 1982 when we got the same kind of interest when Columbia landed out here.”
It was an emotional, bittersweet day Thursday for Robert Mitchell, former director of the White Sands Space Harbor, where space shuttle Columbia landed on March 31, 1982.
“I went up to the (San Augustin) Pass to see it,” Mitchell said. “That was a little far away from the (WSMR) main post, but I sure got a close look up its belly.
“Yes sir, it is a sweet and sour day to see the program go away. Part of the sorrow was seeing part of White Sands Space Harbor taken down.”
Mitchell said he “lost it” several days ago as he watched on NASA TV as Endeavour was loaded onto the SCA and left the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Facility in Florida.
“So many memories of those 30-plus years I was out there,” said Mitchell,referring to White Sands Space Harbor. “I’m very proud of the shuttle program and all the achievements White Sands Space Harbor had. The credit for all of that goes to the 24 people who worked for the contractors out there, led by Frank Offutt. I owe those people, in particular, a lot of thanks for a job well done.”
Endeavour’s fly-over was a final tribute to the work and support NASA’s shuttle program received from WSMR and the White Sands Test Facility. As the now-retired shuttle made in last pass over WSMR, there was a slight tip of the shuttle’s wings, symbolizing one last wave of thanks.
“I saw that, too, and I’d like to believe that’s what that was,” said Gary Giebel, site director for laboratory operations at WSMR’s Army Research Laboratory. “I thought it was impressive.
“To me, it put a closure on 2006, when we came so close then to having the shuttle land here, again, at White Sands. We were so close then, within seconds, of having it land here. But it also puts some closure on a successful project that had a lot of talented and gifted people here involved. It was a real morale booster for the employees to be afforded the opportunity to have one last look at the shuttle.”
Endeavour left Florida on Wednesday and made a layover in Houston. En route to California, it flew over Tucson, Ariz., home of ex-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She’s married to Mark Kelly, Endeavour’s last commander.
“That’s my spaceship,” said Kelly, as the couple watched the shuttle loop over Tucson, Ariz.
Endeavour will be moved via city streets next month to the California Science Center.