“Space is my middle name,” said elementary school student Cameron Weignant on Friday morning at the Chabot Space and Science Center as his mother adjusted the tinted visor on his helmet. While about a hundred people of all ages had come up to the observatory above Oakland hoping for a glimpse of the Space Shuttle Endeavour on its final flyover of California, only Cameron had arrived in a full astronaut costume.
“He’s been interested in space since he was 2,” said Cameron’s mother Maryann, who drove up from Vacaville to be at the center in time for the flyover. “I think he’ll make it up there.”
After twenty years of flight, Endeavor, which was commissioned to replace the destroyed Challenger, was about to face the public one last time as the final piece of NASA’s shuttle program. In its 25 missions since 1992, Endeavour traveled 122,853,151 miles and spent 299 days in space, according to a Chabot press release. On Friday, the shuttle flew piggybacked on top of a 747 for one last mission—a curtain call that took it across California on the way to its final resting place at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where it will be displayed as a museum piece.
Endeavour was first sighted by Chabot visitors around 10am, barely visible through gaps in the tree line around the observatory, a smaller-than-expected white and red point moving across the horizon. “There!” people yelled excitedly, causing a tidal shift in the crowd as people moved to the fences to see through the trees. The view from the hilltop was never very clear, but the Chabot staffers played a video of a closer look at the shuttle on TV displays inside the observatory domes.
While the younger crowd spent most of the morning in happy anticipation, the many older followers of the space program saw the event as something bittersweet. “It’s the end of NASA as we know it,” said Cindy Bhusari, up for the morning from San Leandro. Bhusari, like many other attendees, said she is disappointed that NASA has no concrete plans for a new manned program of any kind. Bhusari remembers watching the moon landing on TV through a store window when she was 6 years old. “For many kids, all they’ve known are the shuttles,” said Bhusari. She says that ending one program before beginning–or even announcing–another is “a disappointment for children.”
Many older viewers gazed up for a long time after Endeavour had passed by, shaking their heads and trading memories of the space program, from Mercury to the shuttle. “We’re all kind of emotionally invested in the shuttle program,” said Steve Clark who came with his son for one last look at Endeavour. “I’m sad to see it come to an end.”
Chabot Space & Science Center science coordinator Jonathan Braidman said the center would have hosted a viewing party, even if NASA officials hadn’t suggested it to them earlier this month. “We were surprised and pleased when NASA recommended us,” he said.
Braidman wasn’t surprised by the enthusiastic turnout on Friday. To him, there had always been something special about the Space Shuttle program that grabbed people’s imagination in a way previous NASA programs, with more exciting goals, never had. “For a lot of people, the shuttle was the first space ship that was recognizable as a space ship,” said Braidman. “It had wings; it looked cool.”
Braidman said that the shuttle gave kids a way to connect imaginary play with their larger ideas of space travel. “Apollo, which was an amazing project, was not the kind of thing you’d want to hold in your hand and fly around,” he said.
The morning event drew a large number of kids, who started craning their necks for early glimpses of the shuttle around 8:30. “We always try to get kids energized and passionate about the space program,” said Chabot Center executive director and CEO Alex Zwissler. He says kids often come to Chabot in their own astronaut costumes.
Many on Friday remained optimistic about the future of NASA’s manned space program. Phil Rogers, who lives just below the Oakland observatory, said he was confident that there is “something to look forward to” in the near future of space travel. “NASA will come up with something to get us excited,” he said. Now that the shuttle program has finally come back to the ground, Rogers says he—like the rest of the country—is in “wait and see mode.”