Diary of a Shuttle Groupie

Chasing Endeavour from Coast to Coast

Skip the blah blah blah and just show me the photos!

Space Shuttle Endeavour’s ferry flight from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in California marked the last time that a shuttle orbiter was carried on board the modified Boeing 747 known as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA).  Being a historically significant event, I volunteered to provide photographic coverage for airliners.net, like what I did for that site for the final two space shuttle missions, STS-134 and STS-135. 

Friday, September 14

My alarm went off at 2 am, but I didn’t need it.  I arrived at my Cocoa Beach hotel the previous evening at around 9 pm.  I wasn’t able to sleep either due to the excitement of the upcoming events, coming off working night shift earlier in the week, or the fact that 2 am was only 11 pm back home.  Thank goodness Dunkin’ Donuts was open 24-hours!

After picking up my badge, I made it to the KSC Press Site shortly before the required arrival time of 3:30 am.  There, I met up with familiar faces from my previous trips there.

Mood among the media corps was definitely more relaxed than the two shuttle launches I was there for and the madhouse that was the last shuttle landing.

By 4:30 am, we were set up next to the roadway/taxiway between the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the Orbiter Processing Facilities for Endeavour’s rollout to the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF).  Mosquitos in the area were happy to see a fresh supply of blood.  My long sleeves and pants only provided minimal protection. 

I setup next to a spotlight and commented to a photographer next to me that it would be nice if they stopped Endeavour under the illumination for photos. 

Shortly after 5 am, Endeavour started its move from VAB’s high bay 4.  Movement by tug was slow and gingerly, as one would expect.  As it approached the spotlight next to me, the tug came to a stop.  What luck!  The ground crew broke out an Endeavour flag and posed for the NASA photographer.


We got back on the bus and continued our trip to the SLF to catch up with Endeavour.  There, I got my first glimpse of the SCA, registered N905NA – the only one remaining, waiting patiently across from the Mate/Demate Device (MDD).

Workers moved swiftly to attach the large yellow sling to Endeavour.  The platform where the workers stood was movable, note it raises and lowers.   

Despite mostly sunny skies you see in the photos, the weather was actually scattered showers, which provided this nice rainbow for the SCA.  Thank goodness for rain covers on my camera bag.

After the sling was attached, Endeavour’s landing gears were raised, the orbiter lifted, and the SCA got towed in underneath.  

Finally, the orbiter was lowered onto the SCA for what is known as “soft mate”.   

From Endeavour’s arrival to soft mate took about six and a half hours.  The entire process went slowly.  Many hours of boredom were mixed in with moments of excitement.  Here I was being bored, waiting for things to happen…

Even a NASA aerial photo of the event caught me sitting on the ground, being bored:

Photo Credit:  NASA

Saturday, September 15

Saturday was a designated off day at KSC.  I went to Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum at Titusville’s Space Coast Regional Airport.   

Some highlights:

Sunday, September 16

I arrived at the Press Site at 5:30 am.  Thank goodness for 24-hours Dunkin’ Donuts.  Buses departed at 6 am for the short ride to the SLF to view SCA and Endeavour backing out of the MDD.  Our early arrival meant we were able to get a nice sunrise photo op of the pair.

NASA astronaut Kay Hire (Mission Specialist STS-90 and STS-130) was on hand for interviews and to answer questions.  Kay was extremely nice and accommodated all requests for interviews and photos.

Here was Kay, posing for me: 

Before leaving, she even came back to me (and others) and asked whether we got everything we wanted.  Nice!  

A lift was used to remove windshield covers from the orbiter.

Without warning, I noticed small groups of photographers were being taken up to the MDD.  Upon realizing this, I grabbed my cameras, ran over to the foot of the MDD and got in line.  Normally, access atop of the MDD is restricted to trained personnel.  With this being the last time, exceptions were made to allow us up.  

I was rewarded with some awesome views of Endeavour with the SCA.  It was breathtaking! 

 This shot alone probably made my entire trip:

After leaving KSC for the day, I went to Port Canaveral and did some cruise ship spotting:

Right around that time, I got the news that Endeavour’s ferry flight was being postponed one day from Monday to Tuesday due to unfavorable weather along the flight route.  I was not too concerned as I had built in an one-day margin to my schedule, envisioning something like this happening.

Monday, September 17

The ferry flight was originally supposed to depart this morning.  I spent the day in Orlando, did some plane spotting at the airport (MCO) ahead of thunderstorms and met up with a friend for dinner.

And then I received an email from NASA that the ferry flight has moved yet another day – now to Wednesday, again due to unfavorable weather.  Best-laid plans were meant to be broken, right?  I spend two hours at the hotel on the web and on the phone rebooking air, hotel, and car reservations. 

Tuesday, September 18

I got word that Endeavour and SCA would be moving back the MDD in the morning for thunderstorm protection, predicted for later in the afternoon.  This, of course, allowed for a bonus photo op at the SLF.

By afternoon, it started thunderstorming and continued through the evening.  I paid close attention to weather reports, which thankfully, predicted a dry period in the early morning hours. 

Wednesday, September 19

4 am, Dunkin’ Donuts. Kids of the family ahead of me in line wore replica astronaut orange space suit and blue flight suits.  How cute!  The person behind me was a NASA manager who was about to fly on the pathfinder aircraft ahead of Endeavour.  At this early hour, where else would you find people one way or another tied to the shuttle program?

Did I mention I was glad Dunkin’ Donuts was open 24 hours?

I arrived at the Press Site at 4:30 am for the scheduled 7:15 am departure of Endeavour.  Shortly after 5 am, I gathered with a small group of photographers for a van ride to along side the runway for departure.  We decided to set up 10,500 feet from the end of the runway.

In stark contrast to the slow operation previously witnessed, the departure went off like clockwork.  T-38 chase planes took off first followed by the C-9 pathfinder aircraft.   

Endeavour/SCA showed up quickly thereafter, back taxiing on Runway 15.   The SCA made a brief pause at midfield for a photo op before making to the end of the runway.  

After holding for a minute or so, the SCA started its roll…very slowly, almost imperceptible at first, before gaining enough speed rotating at the 10,000 feet mark right in front of us.

In this NASA photo, you can see me standing on the back bumper of the van taking my shots.

Photo Credit:  NASA

Fifteen minutes later, after performing flybys at Patrick Air Force Base, Cocoa Beach, and the KSC Visitor Center, Endeavour and SCA returned to the SLF on a low flyby of Runway 33 for a final goodbye to KSC before heading to Houston’s Ellington Field.

I bid farewell to the Press Site and my shuttle friends – who knows when I will see them again...  

I had one last important mission at the Space Coast.  I headed a short distance south to Patrick Air Force to catch this rare gem:

A Douglas DC-8-62 Combi.  What a classic!  This guy flies to Patrick twice a week and my timing just worked out.  While I was waiting for that Diesel Eight, this P-3 was flying the pattern.

Thursday, September 20

I spent the night at a fancy Residence Inn at Santa Clarita after arriving at LAX from Orlando the previous evening.   It was the nicest hotel of my entire trip, and I will have spent the least amount of time there.  No rest for the weary.  I still needed two hours to drive to Edwards Air Force Base to catch Endeavour’s arrival after its departure from Houston. 

“Century Circle” outside of Edwards’ west (Rosamond) gate had a nice collection of restored aircraft on display.

After getting my rental vehicle inspected by bomb sniffing dogs and security forces, I drove in a caravan with other members of media to alongside Runway 22L, where Endeavour was expected to land at noon.

The temperature was around 100°F, HOT to say the least.  Heat haze coming off the runway pretty much rendered all distant shots unusable. 

The arrival of the C-9 pathfinder aircraft signaled the shuttle was near.

About a half hour later, at 12:40 pm, Endeavour and SCA showed up and made one pass over Edwards and NASA’s Dryden facilities before coming back for a landing on Runway 22L.  

This guy jumped into my shot at the last moment on my tire smoke photo.  While everyone stood out in the hot sun at the photo line for an hour, this guy sat in his car with the a/c running, at the last minute, ran out of his car and jumped in front of me so he can take a photo with his phone.  Really??

After landing, everyone got into a hundred car long parade/caravan to NASA’s Dryden facility.  Shortly thereafter, we were led to the ramp area, where Endeavour and SCA were on display for employees and families.   

 You shuttle fans would recognize this vehicle:

The crew of the SCA made a brief statement, and announced the departure to San Francisco and LAX the next day might be delayed due to fog.  Right to left:  SCA Commander Bill Brockett, Pilot Frank Batteas, and Flight Engineer Larry Larose piloted the SCA to Edwards earlier in the day.  

I also got my first close up look of Endeavour and SCA.  It’s funny I never got this close out of my entire time at KSC, where everything took place!  

Dryden also had a nice display of preserved aircraft.  Couple notables: SR-71, X-29, and HL-10 lifting body.

Friday, September 21

Endeavour’s departure from Edwards was delayed by one hour due to fog at San Francisco.  Scheduled arrival at LAX was now at 12:45 pm.   

After arriving at the LA basin, Endeavour made a low pass at the LAX’s north complex over Runway 24R.  

After flybys over LA landmarks, 40 minutes later, Endeavour returned to LAX and made another low pass of the south complex over Runway 25R.   

After circling around, the SCA touched down on Runway 25R completing the historical three day journey from Florida to California.

Endeavour and SCA were parked in front of the United hanger, where the orbiter will be temporarily stored until it is transported over surface streets to the California Science Center on October 12-13.  The crane at left would be used to demate Endeavour from the SCA.

Saturday, September 22

Endeavour got demated from the SCA in the wee hours of the morning.  By the time I slow rolled to Imperial Hill, Endeavour was just pulling into the United hanger and the large doors closed behind it.

Here was Endeavour inside the hanger from my visit later in the day.

On October 12 and 13, Endeavour will be moved on city streets from LAX to its final home at the California Science Center in Downtown Los Angeles, where it will be on permanent display for generations to come.

I was glad to have taken this adventure, witnessing history first hand and sharing my images with the world.  I am thankful to everyone that helped me every step along the way to make this trip a success.  Thanks! 


Care to know what was in my camera bag for this trip?   

Isn’t this the most well-packed camera bag you have ever seen?  LOL.  

Two SLR cameras, one point-and-shoot camera (in its own small camera case), two telephoto zooms, two wide angle zooms, GPS unit, gorilla pod, headlamp, and MacBook Pro.  I used all of these items on my trip.

Total weight:  27.5 pounds!

What was the deal with the duck?

Japanese couple/journalists Jin and Kanoko (really just Kanoko) always brought stuffed animals and the shuttle duck to pose at all of the events.  Since I hung out with Jin and Kanoko, I gladly participated.  :-)

Copyright © 2012 Ben Wang.  All Rights Reserved.


  1. GOOD one Ben. I think you should share some more photos.


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