A Space Shuttle goes vertical for one

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For the first time in more than ten years, a Space Shuttle has been raised into launch position. Although the completed stack won’t be seeing a launchpad any time soon.

The Space Shuttle in question is Endeavour, which last flew in space on mission STS-134 in 2011. Endeavour was decommissioned after landing and shipped off to the California Science Center in Los Angeles for display.

The California Science Center had grand plans for its star exhibit, although Endeavour remained in a temporary pavilion as funds were raised for a more permanent home. It took until 2022 before they broke ground for the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center at the site, and the final assembly of a Space Shuttle stack could commence.

During 2023, a pair of solid rocket boosters were erected, followed by the last remaining flight external tank, ET-94. At the beginning of this week, a shrinkwrapped – to protect the orbiter from the grime of the building site – Endeavour was lifted by a sling that would be familiar to crane operators within NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and attached to the external tank.

Endeavour will remain in its plastic cocoon while building works carry on around it – construction is expected to continue for at least another 18 months. The first visitors are unlikely to be welcomed into the new center before 2026. An opening date is yet to be confirmed.

The move is an impressive feat of engineering. According to the California Science Center, a 450-foot (137 meter) crane was required to lift the 122-foot-long (37 meter) orbiter into its final position. The six-month operation to assemble all of the Space Shuttle components was dubbed “Go For Stack,” and was the first time the space agency’s engineers had attempted such an assembly outside of a NASA or Air Force facility.

There are some substantial differences in this stack compared to what would have happened more than a decade ago. For one, the aft skirts of the solid rocket boosters have been mounted on seismic isolator pods. Presenting a 200-foot-tall (61 meter) Space Shuttle stack in an earthquake zone does, after all, carry its own challenges.

Three orbiters remain from the Space Shuttle program and Enterprise, which was used for approach and landing tests and fit checks. Discovery is parked up in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. At Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, Atlantis is mounted as if in orbit, with payload bay doors open.

According to the California Science Center: “This will be the only complete stack of authentic space shuttle flight hardware in existence, making the Endeavour exhibit even more significant than before.” ®

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