I confess to wildly conflicting feelings about the space shuttle Endeavor’s last flight, this time bound to the back of NASA’s carrier 747 as she made one last, low pass over the landscape before arriving at her final destination, the California Science Center in Los Angeles. On the one hand, the images coming out of this flight are simply gorgeous, and I love the fact that they were taken by people from all walks of life. Schools and offices emptied. People of all ages lined the roofs of buildings and the tops of hills to watch. They photographed, they applauded, they knew they were watching history. This sort of universal civic excitement is rare enough to be treasured. (For an exceptional series of photos around the San Francisco Bay area, go to the Mercury News. There’s something indescribably beautiful about Endeavor flying over the Golden Gate Bridge.)
But…it’s history. It’s done. Endeavor and her sister shuttles are grounded forever. It breaks my heart. I can’t look at these photos, beautiful as they are, without feeling that keen edge of sorrow. Which, now that I think about it, is a pretty good example of the Portuguese concept of saudades.
Since I am a sucker for punishment, I went looking for the best videos of this event and found this one, in high definition, by Vincent Laforet. The slow motion, the music, and the people lining the airfield’s fence at the end nearly sent me scurrying for a tissue.
(Full screen viewing is practically required.)
As Laforet notes in his blog, this was not the video he’d wanted or planned. He had arrived at his vantage point four hours in advance, and took a practice video of the dry run landing at LAX two hours before Endeavor herself arrived. At that time, the heat waves weren’t yet shifting the air, giving him extremely clear footage that is missing from his final video. (As he notes, it’s so clear that you can actually see the reflections of houses on the underbelly of the plane.) But worst of all was “the terrible realization that Endeavour was indeed landing on the South LAX runway… but not the southernmost runway that I was lined up on.”
He titled this dry run test video “Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda Been,” which sums it up perfectly. And by sheer accident, he captured a moment that helped me resolve my conflicting feelings. As the 747 roars over a series of runway lights, it startles a red-tailed hawk off its perch. We see the hawk fly down out of the frame — and then we see it return, wings scooping the air and tail flared, as it finds a new perch and stares after the landing plane.
Endeavor will not return to space. But we will.