I am not one of those people who are good at estimating crowds, but if I had to guess, there were probably at least 10,000 people at Ellington Airport around 4 p.m. when I finally gave up on traffic, parked my car on Galveston Road and walked the mile or so to hangar 990 to see Space Shuttle Endeavour aboard the 747 ferry that will, tomorrow morning, take her to her final home in California.
I will admit, having never seen a space shuttle in real life before, that my eyes got a little misty.
Despite the traffic, I feel like I got there at the right time. Traffic didn't get bad until after I exited 45 and hit Galveston Road. Once I made the trek across a field of knee-high grass, there was no line to get into the hangar area, and the crowd inside the barricade was shallow enough that I could walk right up to the barricade to see the space shuttle up close and personal. It looked somewhat well-worn, epsecially at the nose. It also looked totally dwarfed by the airplane below it. Those infamous heat shields were smaller than I imagined. Also, the flag on the right side, the side that faced the crowd, was backwards.
An inexplicable number of people had brought their dogs. Not as many as those who had brought their children, though. And there were other things to do beside see the shuttle. NASA's mobile education lab was there, with a sign promising that kids could "touch a moonrock." There were banners by which to pose for photos, and Johnson Space Center had set up a makeshift gift shop selling T-shirts, coffee mugs and more.
None of this did anything to lessen the underlying feeling that we were all attending a wake of sorts. The pulse of news helicopters overhead drowned out what little conversation it seemed people were having. Most I talked to had few words. The era of of the space shuttle is officially over.
Matthew Rothermel brought his daughters, Madison Ashley, age five, and Abby Ashley, ten, to Ellington because it was "their last chance to see it." He said he'd seen shuttles before, but Abby had never seen one so close. "I thought it would be much bigger," she said.
Marc Attaway's young sons were at Ellington this morning to see the shuttle land. They dragged their dad out after he got off work to see it again. It took them about an hour to get through traffic.
"I was ready to see it," Attaway said.
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"I think it's pretty cool to see it up close," his son added.
I stayed for a while, content to just look at the shuttle, imagine those who had flown in it and picture the image of the earth as seen through those windows. As I was almost back to my car, I passed an older man who had just parked along the road. He asked me, in a British accent, if it was worth it. I shrugged my shoulders and answered, "It's pretty damn cool."
If you didn't make it out to Ellington Field this evening for a glimpse, NASA announced late Wednesday that there will be another flyover Downtown early tomorrow morning. The shuttle is expected to take off from Ellington, which will be closed to crowds, around sunrise, at 7 a.m., and then will fly over both JSC and Downtown before heading to California. If you're on Twitter, the hashtag #spottheshuttle is the best way to stay up-to-date on sightings.
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