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Endeavour brought space a little closer

Posted: September 22, 2012 - 11:12pm

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Friday, Sept. 21:

It’s especially fitting that the space shuttle Endeavour, on its farewell flight Friday morning, will dip to just 1,500 feet above Moffett Field to honor the contributions of NASA Ames’ incredible array of engineers, scientists and researchers.

Those who know shuttle history _ and a good number of NASA Ames employees, past and present, are aficionados _ hold a soft spot in their hearts for Endeavour, the shuttle built to replace Challenger after the tragic 1986 explosion.

A lot was riding on Endeavour after Congress approved the construction of the $1.7 billion replacement vehicle. Many questioned the value of the space program, and NASA’s very future was at stake. The agency couldn’t afford another disaster with its newest baby. But the shuttle met every expectation and then some over the next 19 years, flying more than 100 million miles over 25 flights.

One of Endeavour’s scariest moments came in 1994, on the launchpad for its fifth flight, STS-68. One of Silicon Valley’s own was on board _ Leland High and Stanford graduate Steve Smith. It was Smith’s first mission as an astronaut, and his Almaden parents, Bob and Lilly Smith, and dozens of his friends and family were on hand on a warm, clear dawn for the Aug. 18 liftoff from Kennedy Space Center.

All three main engines ignited for takeoff, but with less than two seconds remaining on the countdown, a sensor detected a potential problem with one of the engines and aborted the flight. At the time, it was the latest abort of a manned NASA launch in history. But a month later, on Sept. 30, Endeavour did blast into space, allowing Smith and his fellow crew members to complete their Space Radar Laboratory experiments.

Smith was interviewed by the San Jose Mercury News a number of times before and after that flight. He recalled his first look out of Endeavour’s window as a “magical experience. ... Globally, the view of the Earth was incredibly heartwarming. You think, my gosh, it’s even more beautiful than you can even imagine it. I looked out the window and thought that it doesn’t matter what your religious affiliation is, someone or somebody or something played a significant role in making this happen, and we really need to do all we can to take care of it.”

Smith still works for NASA in Europe, and he’s still a huge advocate of the space program. He notes that historically NASA gets less than 1 percent of the national budget and got a return on investment of more than seven times its budget. Some of the hundreds of spinoffs from Endeavour and the other shuttle mission flights include technologies that create cleaner landfills, improve aircraft traffic management and measure the health of the ocean. Many of them have their roots in NASA Ames.

So when Endeavour passes over the Bay Area for one last flight, don’t think of it as a relic of the past. It’s a harbinger of great things to come.

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