If all goes as planned, the Bay Area will be treated to the stunning spectacle Friday of the space shuttle Endeavour riding across the region's sky and dipping low toward the ground on the back of a 747 carrying a piece of American ingenuity into retirement.
I'm pretty jazzed. And Silicon Valley should be, too.
Face it: If any one place could get excited about hosting the first and last Northern California flyover of a space shuttle, it's Silicon Valley, a place that not only can claim to be the spaceship's birthplace (more or less), but also is the land where the geekerati are obsessively fixated on just what technology makes possible.
Weather permitting, it will be a morning of wide eyes and craned necks, as the 100-ton shuttle jets from Sacramento, where it will make a low pass near the Capitol; to San Francisco, where it will fly low near the Golden Gate Bridge; and on to Moffett Field, where in honor of NASA Ames, the piggybacking shuttle will make its final low pass -- at 1,500 feet or so, NASA officials say.
"I just think it's so cool. It's going to fly low and people will be able to see it," says Donald James, NASA Ames' acting director of new ventures and communication who's been with the space agency for 30 years. "A space shuttle has never been in Northern California, ever, and it's never going to be here again."
The flight, which should reach Moffett sometime after 9 a.m., is a farewell flight, after all. And the public is invited to say goodbye at an informal ceremony at the Mountain View airfield. The space shuttle program has run its astronomical course, its orbiters parceled out to museums in Florida, Washington, D.C., New York City, and in Endeavour's case, the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The museum will be the ship's last stop after a nine-year career in which it blasted into space 25 times and traveled 122,883,151 miles.
While the shuttle remains a technological marvel, Endeavour's goodbye tour is a reminder that there is only so much humans can conquer with know-how. The weather, particularly low cloud cover, could wreak havoc on NASA's plans, or even scrub Endeavour's last mission. Stormy weather along Endeavour's cross-country flight path already has pushed its Bay Area visit back from Thursday to Friday. Friday's Bay Area forecast is for low clouds, burning off by late morning, so keep your fingers crossed.
Only a general flight schedule had been released as of Monday, but considering the flight's schedule at Moffett and its need to be in Los Angeles by about 11 a.m., you can assume the shuttle and its chauffeur will be flying through the Bay Area from roughly 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.
So, you're wondering, how best to see this amazing sight? Your best bet, for my money, is the event at Moffett Field. The gates open at 6 a.m. There will be food trucks and informational booths explaining NASA Ames' shuttle connections, a few short speeches and a countdown to the shuttle sighting starting at 9 a.m. (See http://1.usa.gov/Qg9W4n for information and to register for a parking pass.)
Otherwise, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to see this bit of rocket technology.
"I think any place where people can look up, mid-Peninsula, close to the water," says James. Think Shoreline Park or the Baylands in Palo Alto. Farther north there is Coyote Point in San Mateo County, the Golden Gate Bridge vista points and Crissy Field.
The aerial visit to Moffett is in honor of NASA Ames' contribution to the shuttle program, which goes back to the very beginning, when the base's massive wind tunnels were used in the early conceptual work.
"The very design of the shuttle was based on work done by NASA Ames people," James says. "The shuttle tiles were invented at Ames. We have a simulator that every shuttle pilot who has ever flown the shuttle has come here to fly."
And so, James, who started at Ames in 1984, practically has goose bumps, like many in the Bay Area who have been mesmerized by a shuttle liftoff, or who've mourned a shuttle disaster, or who've had their notions of what was humanly possible challenged by witnessing men and women fly off into space only to return and land about the same way the Southwest shuttle touches down at Mineta San Jose International Airport.
But maybe the aerial visit is even more important to those who weren't even born when the first space shuttle blasted off in 1981. That's why administrators at Mountain View's Theurerkauf Elementary, across Highway 101 from Moffett Field, were planning to have the kids out looking skyward when the shuttle passes, as long as it doesn't interfere with valuable instructional time.
"The weather has been pretty good here," school secretary Mary Colon says hopefully.
Let's hope that holds true Friday. I can't think of a better way to inspire the innovators of tomorrow.
tracking the shuttle
NASA Ames Twitter feed @NASAAmes will provide regular updates on Endeavour's progress.
The NASA Ames home page, http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/home/index.html, will also carry updates.
NASA Ames will use the hashtags for shuttle news of #spottheshuttle and #OV105, in honor of Endeavour's orbiter vehicle designation.
NASA Ames asks shuttle spotters on Friday to tweet their photos of the shuttle using the hash tags.