After 25 flights into the Earth’s atmosphere, the space shuttle Endeavor ventured on its last mission where no NASA orbiter had gone before: into the streets of Los Angeles. On Sunday, after months of painstaking planning, Endeavour arrived safely at its final destination, the California Science Center.
NASA knows all about outer space. But the streets and the subterranean world? Not so much. To navigate a space craft through a major American city required different experts, including Richard Plump, the CEO and founder of Plump Engineering. He has quietly made a name for himself as an underground specialist in extreme logistics. Last spring, his assignment was a rock. A rock in a quarry far, far away. A rock weighing 340 tons that needed to travel 106 miles to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of an exhibit.
Compared to the boulder, Endeavour is a pebble, weighing in at around 170,000 pounds—the weight of about 56 cars. But when placed atop a 350,000-pound transport vehicle (the equivalent of 116 more cars), the shuttle becomes a hazard to surface streets. Then there’s Endeavour’s size. L.A.’s famously wide boulevards are ideal for cruising, just not in a 122-foot long shuttle with a 78-foot wingspan and a wheels-to-tail height of 50 feet.
Over the years, Endeavour flew nearly 123 million miles at 18,000 mph. The 14-mile route from Los Angeles International Airport to the science center took three days. Cruising speed was 2 m.p.h., the pace of rush-hour on the 405. The streets were lined with thousands of onlookers.
Lift-off was—okay, there was no lift-off. On Friday morning at 2 a.m., the hulking transporter inched forward to start the journey. Plump, who was part of a team that included engineers, utility and construction workers and local police, followed in a vehicle behind the shuttle, making sure it stayed in the designated position in the street. In the months leading up to Friday, he had poured over old drawings and surveys studying what lay beneath Manchester, Crenshaw, and Martin Luther King Boulevards. There were sewer, water, and storm water pipes made of concrete, even clay. "Some of them date back to 1920 or 1930," Plump said. "You have to be careful."
Using 3-D modeling, Plump’s team had analyzed what the road and the pipes could handle and determined where steel plates were needed to disperse the heavy load—2,600 steel plates in all. Above ground was another story. Teams surveyed every type of obstacle: light poles, power lines, traffic signs, parking meters, and trees. Many were removed in advance, including 400 trees in Englewood and South L.A., which the science center will replace with nearly three times as many to appease local activists.
But some obstacles needed to return to normal more quickly. So crews working ahead of the shuttle raised, lowered, or removed them. The most serious issue was three major power lines. They hung too low for Endeavour to clear. Each had to be lowered, "de-energized," and then brought back online as the shuttle passed. The catch was not having fewer than two power lines in use at once.
The risk? "A possible blackout for the city of Los Angeles," Plump said.
L.A. really would have a problem.
Fortunately, there was no blackout during this endeavor. Unless you count naps. Crew members dozed during two five-hour breaks. During the move, Plump, whose ordinary projects are remodeling or constructing anything from industrial plants to Del Taco restaurants and 7-11 stores, tried to treat it like "just another job," he said. "You break the problem down into pieces. Get all your permits." But a vehicle that has orbited the planet and returned is not another 7-11. That’s why Plump printed up commemorative shirts featuring his company’s logo and Endeavour.
"I was visualizing it in space the other day," he said of the shuttle. "And now we’re putting it to rest. This is a once-in-a-lifetime job."