As the space shuttle Endeavour inches down Los Angeles streets Friday and Saturday, new zoomable, ultrahigh-resolution pictures offer a last spin around the NASA craft's flight deck, button by button. At least one image (above) shows Endeavour as it will never be seen again—powered up, as if in flight.
The shuttle's road trip from a hangar at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), where it's been housed since a cross-country flight last month, to the California Science Center (CSC) is only 12 miles (19 kilometers) long but has required months of planning.
City workers have had to reinforce city streets with steel plates to withstand Endeavour's 170,000 pounds (77,110 kilograms) and remove more than 400 trees, 200 streetlights, and nearly 60 traffic signals to make way for the five-story-tall orbiter.
"Never before has an item of this size traversed our city streets," Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement.
(See more zoomable panoramas of space shuttles.)
Endeavour as "She Would've Been"
To provide an unprecedented look at Endeavour and the other retired space shuttles, both inside and out, photographers for National Geographic recently captured more than two dozen ultrahigh-resolution, 360-degree pictures of each orbiter. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)
The 3.65-gigapixel Endeavour picture above, for instance, is made of up more than 600 individual photographs digitally stitched together.
Of the three shuttles freelance photojournalist Jon Brack photographed, Endeavour was the only one to be shot with its flight deck powered on.
"At periodic times during the decommissioning [of the shuttles], they had to turn them on to do things, and we made sure we were there on one of the days when they had to turn Endeavour on," Brack said.
"Endeavour was exactly how she would've been after coming freshly back from space."
Brack's photograph of an illuminated Endeavour is among the last to show a powered-on shuttle flight deck. The flight decks of all of the orbiters will be permanently turned off while on public display.
Part of the reason for this, Brack explained, is that powering on the flight deck is a complicated process.
"The power switch of the shuttle isn't in the shuttle. It's in mission control," he said. "So it's a coordinated effort between mission control and somebody in the shuttle to power them up. It's not like a car, where you just turn a key."
Another reason: Shuttle flight decks get very hot with all of the equipment turned on, and special cooling systems are needed to carry away the heat.
"The crew module is water cooled, but the rest of the shuttle uses Freon," a toxic refrigerant gas, Brack said. "Sitting in a museum, you can't have Freon or water."
(See National Geographic's picks of the most unforgettable space shuttle pictures.)
Evolution of the Shuttle Flight Deck
The flight decks of each of the shuttles have changed throughout the years as a result of periodic upgrades—a complicated process that involved a flight back to California, where all of the orbiters were born, and a temporary break from duty.
Each new space shuttle boasted innovations to reduce weight improve safety, and so forth, Brack explained. Then engineers would apply the improvements to older shuttles.
Former NASA astronaut Scott "Doc" Horowitz noted the differences in the flight deck of the space shuttle Discovery when it was retired to a National Air and Space Museum facility outside Washington, D.C., earlier this year.
"It's awesome, although it doesn't look like the flight deck I flew on Discovery. That one still had old-fashioned style instrumentation," said Horowitz, who served as both a commander and a pilot aboard Discovery.
"Pictures like this give you insight into just how complex it is to operate a vehicle that travels in space and pull off a manned space program."
NASA Opens Up
NASA and United Space Alliance, the agency's prime contractor for servicing the shuttles, made the interactive panoramas possible by granting news organizations unprecedented access to the hundred-ton spaceships after each final shuttle flight (pictures of Endeavour's last mission).
"When the shuttles were flying, workers had to maintain the integrity and cleanliness of the vehicles. We had to keep them safe for spaceflight" and so couldn't allow much outside access, Lisa Fowler, a NASA spokesperson at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, told Natoonal Geographic News last spring.
"Now that they're being readied for display, we've been able to grant more access into them."
Discovering the Shuttle's "Bob" Switch
National Geographic was one of more than a hundred news outlets allowed inside the space shuttles.
When they were granted access, Susan Poulton, a vice president of digital media at the National Geographic Society, and Brack originally planned to make only a couple wrap-around images of Discovery using GigaPan. The technology, developed for NASA's Mars rovers, uses a camera-ready robot and image-stitching software to create the zoomable, 360-degree panoramas.
Poulton and Brack eventually logged 30 hours inside and around Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis, creating 27 gigapans of the space shuttles. The pair captured everything from the flight decks, mid-decks, and air locks to the underbellies, payload bays—and even the toilets.
"The space shuttle is something we always see at a distance. It has always been this forbidden place. We wanted to get pics of everything as close as possible, and we knew GigaPan's high-definition panoramas would allow you to zoom in intimately close," Brack said.
"It's a whole new way to look at these spacecraft."
According to Poulton, a long-time space shuttle fan who's witnessed 19 launches and 57 launch attempts, "We realized there was a story in the details that we didn't know until we took the panoramas."
In the interactive gigapan of Discovery, for example, viewers can zoom in on a hidden nugget of space shuttle history: the "Bob" switch.
"This unusual-looking switch controls the nose wheel steering and has a piece of plastic tubing attached to simply make it easier to trigger," reads an annotated caption in the Discovery gigapan.
"During the maiden voyage of Atlantis in October, 1985, commander Karol J. Bobko found the thick gloves of his pressurized suit made it challenging to quickly throw the switch during landing.
"This piece of tubing was both playfully and helpfully installed by those processing the shuttle after the mission. Its tradition has carried over and it is present in all three orbiters, affectionately known as the 'Bob' switch, for its namesake commander."
"Like a Funeral Wake"
Organizing robot-powered photo shoots wasn't easy. Even before NASA launched its last space shuttle mission aboard Atlantis in July 2011, workers were toiling to prepare Discovery for the Smithsonian.
Brack and Poulton had to gain permission to get in and around the space shuttles while technicians drained toxic fluids, disabled flammable fuel cells, and removed other dangers from Discovery and the other shuttles in preparation for their public display.
"They had to make it completely nonhazardous, and it was full of Freon and pyrotechnics—all kinds of crazy things that could leak in a museum and hurt people," Brack said.
Poulton said photographing the orbiters was also emotionally challenging, because the program was officially coming to an end before their eyes.
"The first day we went down there, it was like a funeral wake. These guys know the orbiter in a level of detail that's difficult to understand," Poulton said. "They would get very overwhelmed and emotional when they spoke about the shuttles in general."
Still, "they really wanted to make sure the story of the space shuttle, of this program, would be told," she said. "They physically couldn't not talk about it."
Holding on to the Memories
Jay Beason, a senior aerospace technician at United Space Alliance, was on the scene to assist Brack and Poulton with the photo project. After Brack finished each panorama, he sent it to Beason and other shuttle workers to gather their feedback.
"Of all the images I've seen so far, their images best capture the wonder of these orbiters, what makes them tick, and the enormous complexity astronaut crews had to deal with," said Beason, who worked on the shuttles for 23 years.
"I've got [the shuttle panoramas] open on my laptop in my living room, and I pull them up all the time," Beason said. "I plan on holding on to my memories of these machines for as long as I can."