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Space Shuttle Endeavor Lands Safely at Kennedy Space Center

Aired June 1, 2011 - 02:29   ET


JOHN VAUSE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: It's coming up to 2:30am East Coast Time in the U.S. and we'd like to welcome our viewers across the United States who are joining us here on CNN International as we wait for the shuttle Endeavour to touch down. The exact time of the landing, according to NASA is 02:35 and 23 seconds.

Let's just take a moment and listen in to Mission Control as Endeavour makes its final approach.

And, of course, sods law. Last time we heard them speak it was down to - - there we are.

Receiving good, heads up display video. Last time we heard them talk there was no cross winds at the Kennedy Space Center. There was a tail wind and we are now just about ten minutes or five minutes away rather from the touch down.

Now Endeavour has travelled almost 123 million miles. Almost 200 million kilometers and spent a total of 299 days in space. This is the shuttles twenty fifth and final mission. Let's bring in CNN's John Zarrella who in live at the Kennedy Space Center for more on Endeavour's final mission.

And John, you've seen a few shuttle landings in your time. What can we expect from this one?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're looking at the head's up display there which is what the commander is seeing as he's descending and really Endeavour is for Mark Kelly, the Commander, falling like a rock right now. They just dropped under the speed of sound, just under mach one, so about 650 miles per hour. What you're going to be looking at and listening for next is as the shuttle makes the big turn - - right there, just on queue, twin sonic boom. I don't know if you heard that or not.

VAUSE: We did.

ZARRELLA: But in fact, the Endeavour has signaled that it has made the turn overhead and is now pretty much coming in on about a seven degrees sharper drop than you would find in an airliner John. And remember, it is a glider, it can do it once, it can come down here once. He's got to hit it right on the money, there's no going back around and making a second try at this. And now we're looking at what, about three minutes or so until the landing of Endeavour. Okay, John.

VAUSE: John, just stay with us because we have a guest with us. We have Leroy Chiao, former NASA Astronaut who is joining us now from Houston. Leroy, just tell us as we await Endeavour to touch down, just talk to us about just how special Endeavour really is because it was described to me as the pride of the shuttle fleet.

LEROY CHIAO, FORMER NASA ASTRONAUT: Well Endeavour of course is the youngest shuttle and my second mission was aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour so this is obviously a very special ship to me. But yes, she's making her last flight and she still is the youngest of the fleet.

VAUSE: Only 25 missions, it was built for 100 flights so some people, some critics out there say that this is a huge waste when they retire the shuttle fleet it's going to put NASA 50 years behind.

CHIAO: Well, it is a shame. I mean the space shuttle still has a lot of life left in it. It could fly and there have been no vehicles before and they have not even contemplated to come anywhere even close to the capability of space shuttle so I am also sad to see the program come to an end very soon.

VAUSE: And just stay with us Leroy because we're going to go back to John Zarrella to pick up about the future for the Space Shuttle Endeavour once it touches down what will they do with it?

ZARRELLA: It's going to take some time to get it all cleaned up and a lot of the hazardous chemicals and the propellants cleaned out of it. They'll be taking a lot of the hardware out of it and then Endeavour is going to end up at the California Science Center out in Los Angeles and it's a museum out there. And that is where it will be on display.

Of course we know Atlantis, which will fly in July, the last shuttle to fly. It's going to make its home right here at the Kennedy Space Center once it's retired.

And Discovery, which has already flown its last flight will be at the Smithsonian.

Picking up on Leroy's point about the Endeavour. Endeavour would never have been built if it hadn't been for the very tragic Challenger accident. It was Ronald Reagan, President Reagan at the time saying we are going to press forward. We're going to continue with the exploration of space and they made the decision to go ahead and build the replacement for the Challenger.

VAUSE: John, sorry, I just want to interrupt, to explain to our viewers, we can actually see Endeavour now.

ZARRELLA: There it is. There it is.

Looking at the cameras, and it's coming in right now. The wheels are down, flared over the runway.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gear down and locked. Touchdown. Chute deployed by Greg Johnson. Forward, you're touchdown.

And so after a journey of 6.5 million miles, Endeavour landing in darkness, but illuminated by the ingenuity, dedication of every astronaut, scientist, engineer, flight control, mechanic and dreamer who helped to fly. The fleets youngest ship completing its 122 millionth mile after the crew delivered an instrument to the International Space Station. It will sift through the cosmic darkness for years to come.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Houston, Endeavour, wheels stop.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 122 million miles flown during 25 challenging space flights. Your landing ends a vibrant legacy for this amazing vehicle that will long be remembered. Welcome home, Endeavour.

MARK KELLY, COMMANDER OF ENDEAVOUR: Thank you, Houston. You know, the space shuttle is an amazing vehicle. To fly through the atmosphere, hit it at mach 25, I mean steer through the atmosphere like an airplane, land on a runway, it is really an incredible ship. On behalf of my entire crew, I want to thank every person who has worked to get this mission going. And every person who has worked on Endeavour. It's sad to see her land for the last time, but she really has a great legacy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Great words. Thank you, Mark. And we'll meet you and your crew on five - three.

ZARRELLA: You know, John, we don't want anybody out there that is watching to worry about that, what they're seeing there. You know, as Leroy Chiao, who is probably still with us can testify, that's just a burn off of some propellants. You don't see it during daylight launches. It's not a fire. It's not anything that anybody has to worry about as we see Endeavour sitting there.

VAUSE: Let's go back to Leroy who can tell us exactly what happened, exactly what we're watching with Endeavour. Leroy?

CHIAO: Right, John is correct. It's nothing to worry about. What you're seeing are the exhausts from the auxiliary power units. You can think of them as small jet engines. And they're burning hydrazine and you're seeing the exhaust from that. Of course the AP supplies the hydraulic pressure for all of the systems aboard the Endeavour.

VAUSE: When I saw the Endeavour coming in, I heard the communications and the talk between Mark Kelly and Mission Control, it was a real goose bump moment for me. What was it like for you, Leroy? This must have been -- I don't want to over apply it, but fairly emotional for you.

CHIAO: Very much so. Any shuttle flight is special. Coming up to the landing or the culmination of the end of the flight is a very special moment. That's kind of a stressful time on the Commander as he or she makes the actual landing. And as you come down, the wheels stop, especially this time, the last time for Endeavour, it's definitely bittersweet. I did my first two spacewalks out of Endeavour's air lock many years ago. And every vehicle, every shuttle is special. And Endeavour is no exception.

VAUSE: Leroy, we're now coming up to the last shuttle flight, the Atlantis in July, if it all goes according to plan and on schedule. And that's now leading to a lot of people to ask the question, what would we not have if we did not have the shuttle program and all of the hundreds of billions of dollars that were spent?

CHIAO: Well, you know, it's -- the shuttle is still the most advanced flying machine ever built. It never lived up to the promise of inexpensive access to space unfortunately, but we learned a heck of a lot about operating a reusable vehicle. And the lessons learned that can be applied in the future to a reusable vehicle are invaluable.

So as I said before, there is no vehicle that has anywhere close to the capability of shuttle in the past or even for the future. She takes off like a rocket, takes a crew of up to seven astronauts, payload of over 50,000 pounds. It's a superb orbiting laboratory as well as construction platform. You can do spacewalks. It's got a robotic arm. You can take up big pieces of space station or other things and deploy it.

So, you know, there is nothing even on the drawing boards that can come even close to her capabilities. Yes, it's an expensive program. But to me it was well worth it.

VAUSE: And let's just go back to John Zarrella. Not only was this an amazing final touchdown, but this mission in itself, the back story, John, and all of this with Commander Mark Kelly and the U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head as we know, but was there for the lift-off. Give us some of those details. Because that was incredible.

ZARRELLA: Yes, it really was. For a while, it was questioned as to whether Mark Kelly was even going to be able to continue to command this flight. And after his wife was shot, he took some time down. And NASA appointed an Interim Commander so the crew could continue their training.

Then once his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, was moved to Houston for the Rehabilitation Center there, Kelly gave it some long thought and conversations with family members, et cetera, et cetera. And he came out in a news conference and said look, she is here. I'm here. We're both in Houston. What am I going to do? She is in rehab all day. I might as well be training for a flight.

And so the bottom line was that the decision was made by his family and by her that he would go ahead and fly this flight. And then the drama was would Gabrielle Giffords be able to watch her husband when he lifted off from the Space Center. And, in fact, you know, it was certainly a minor miracle if you believe in such things that she was even able to come here to witness that lift-off, and then go back home to Houston and continue her rehab. And in fact had an operation on her skull while he was flying this mission. So that's quite a bit of the back story to this whole, you know, Endeavour final flight was the Giffords-Kelly drama that played out over several months. John?

VAUSE: It's an amazing story. Everything to do with the Endeavour right now. So John Zarrella there at the Kennedy Space Center. We had Leroy Chiao in Houston, Texas. We've lost him but thank him for his time. John, we thank you for being with us so early in the morning.

For our viewers in the U.S., we say goodbye. You'll return to "ANDERSON COOPER 360."