It was a morning of high excitement.
Some 20,000 people, by NASA-Ames’ count, had come through Moffett Fields’ Ellis Street and Moffett Street gates, starting at 6 a.m.
The mood of the swelling crowds of kids and parents, grandparents and babes-in-arms was happy, lighthearted. They were going to see something that had never been seen here before—the fly over of Space Shuttle Endeavour, the last of the space shuttles that was headed to Los Angeles to become an exhibit in the California Science Center.
NASA had pushed back the take off from Edwards Air Force base to 8:15 a.m., to give Mother Nature a chance to clear lingering fog from San Francisco, something that might spoil those beauty shots of Endeavour flying low by the Golden Gate Bridge.
Judith Jetson (“Here’s my driver’s license, I really am a Jetson”) brought her parents, Patrick and Jonquil Presby, and her grandson, Elvis, from Morgan Hill to Moffett Field for the event. “It’s worth it to come out here, this is history,” she said. For a few years, she had worked at the gate, inspecting vehicles coming in, wielding mirrors to see the undercarriage. It was right after 9/11, she said.
By 8 a.m. the speeches had begun, from people who had been intimately tied to Endeavour and the space shuttle program—Astronaut Steve Robinson, who flew the Endeavour, and John Allmen, of Gilroy, who ran the NASA Ames’ Shuttle Operations Program from 2005 to 20011.
Endeavour, the youngest and the last of the Space Shuttles, completed 25 missions, spent 299 days in orbit, and orbited Earth 4,671 times while traveling 122,883,151 miles, according to NASA. Its last mission—and the second-to-last mission of the Space Shuttle Program—was completed in May 2011, and scores of locals came to the Moffett Field to watch live broadcasts of its takeoff at Kennedy Space Center.
Robinson told the crowd that this was the end of an era, but that there was still much to do.
“It’s sad to see it go into a museum,” Robinson said. “But it is a shining example of what people right here in Mountain View can do.”
Allmen talked about what it was to work on such a successful program, and the pride that exuded from the men and women at NASA-Ames in their part. “Our job was making sure the astronauts in the Shuttle got home safely, and we were proud of it.”
The next challenge will be the distant planets, he said. “And it will be the younger generation that will travel to those distant planets.”
And then all there was to do was wait. It was Friday, after all, and it was a festive occasion.
"I'm waiting in line for the iPhone 5, right?" joked Wayman Jung, 36, of San Francisco. He was right at the barricade with scoreds of others in front of the runway where the Shuttle Endeavour was supposed to track. He was delaying coming into his job at a San Jose video game company. Besides, he had the iPhone thing already covered.
"I got a text—My iPhone was just delivered to my work address," Jung said. He'd ordered it by phone as soon as it was available. He didn't have time for iPhone lines, he'd rather spend his time waiting for the Endeavour, he said.
"This was way more important." He planned to shoot as many photos as he could with his Canon 5D.
The crowd noshed at the phalanx of food trucks that had been parked outside the NASA building closes to the runway. They spread out their blankets and caught a quick snooze. They danced to the music that was playing.
Also standing by the runway barricade with a front row seat was Hexin Wang, 36, who brought his son, 5 ½-year-old son, Aidan.
“I think this is a pretty special moment,” the Los Altos resident said. “It’s a mixed feeling. The era is finished, and the U.S. has been the leader.
"They say the space program is going on, Wang said. “But I don’t see that much focus on space right now. “
He pulled Aidan out of kindergarten at Loyola School for the day because he hoped it would be a good experience for him.
Steve Kan, 35, had his son, Adam, 6, with him. The Menlo Park resident remembers the Space Shuttle Program vividly. He was one of millions of kids who participating in the naming contest for the Endeavour, many years ago.
“I was so sad I wasn’t chosen,” he said. But a million other kids had submitted exactly the same name he had. “I wonder how they chose the winner, “ he mused. Funny thing is, he can’t remember the name he sent in. No matter. “I remember caring about it.”
Megan and David Sanchez, a Santa Clara couple in their 20s, came out to see the shuttle because of its historic nature, David said. But it was Megan's sister, who had seen Space Shuttle Discovery make a similar flyover through restricted airspace in Washington D.C. last April who tipped them off that it was something worth waking up early to see.
"She said it was amazing," Sanchez said. "She said people were stopped on the freeway."
NASA officials tabs on the Endeavour’s progress, and kept the crowd informed.
It was circling the state Capitol.
It was flying over the Golden Gate Bridge.
It was heading down the Peninsula.
It would be here in five minutes.
The crowd strained against the barricade toward the runway and trained their eyes and their cameras north, toward San Francisco.
Then someone pointed at a small object in the distance. It was coming!
Cameras tilted and calibrated, ready to pan toward the east as it got closer.
A television reporter on the phone with his station, told them he was watching it come in at that moment. People held their breaths as shutters fired off.
And then a NASA spokesmen informed us we were following the chase jet.
But where was the shuttle?
At that moment, Shuttle Endeavor, white and majestic atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, appeared over the skeletal hulk of Hangar 1 and serenely flying south to the west of the crowd.
A collective groan rippled as everyone swung 180 degrees to capture the shot of a lifetime on their cameras.
Record buttons pressed. iPads and camera phones, big television cameras all swept southward. Groans were forgotten.
And onward it flew, stately and regal, into the haze and the bright morning sunlight.
"That. Was. Awesome," said one boy, in the lingua franca of our time.
NASA officials thanked everyone for coming. A happy buzz floated through the air. People happily and slowly dissipated through the gates, lingering first to take pictures of themselves in front of Hangar One.
What a way to start to the weekend.