Driving the Space Shuttle

How a team of experts navigated a spaceship through the streets of L.A.

The orbiter Endeavour dwarfs Sarens operator Gordon Lofts – and everyone else along the route – as it negotiates the 12 miles from airport to science center. (Sarens)

Last October, NASA sent space shuttle Endeavour to its retirement home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. A 747 deposited the orbiter at LAX airport, where transport experts with the Belgium-based Sarens Group picked up the reins and began the two-day, twelve-mile trek through city streets. Operator Gordon Lofts and engineer Frank Dominy of Sarens spoke to Air & Space Associate Editor Heather Goss about the surreal experience. Click on the photo gallery to see more photos, and see below for drawings and other documents from the project (or view them full-size here.)

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Air & Space: Why does somebody contact Sarens?

Lofts: We move high, wide, heavy, oversized things. We have lots of cranes and lots of SPMTs – that stands for self-propelled modular trailers – to move extremely large or oversized loads. We have a large number of cranes to do heavy lifting.

What did you think when somebody told you, “I want you to move the space shuttle through Los Angeles”?

Lofts: My first impulse was that I couldn’t see it happening. I think we became a lot more excited the closer it came to reality. It was months of legwork and prep work, and as it got closer, the excitement gathered considerably.

How did the team work together to haul the shuttle?

Lofts: There were six operators, three [per] 12-hour shift. We took turns driving [by remote control] or being the guide. The driver didn’t always have the best viewpoint, so the other operators would be near the wingtips, trying to get past tight places.

Dominy: I was down in Los Angeles on several different occasions, doing measurements in the field. We had one other engineer, Joe Baddour. He was in L.A. the last three and a half months of the project. He kept double-checking things. Issues came up with trees that the city wanted to not remove so we’d check those to see if we could get around them. It was a huge engineering effort, but mostly it was just coordinating the logistics of the hauler – that was the big thing.

We had a couple other engineers we brought down just for the transport. We had a set of drawings that showed every maneuver on the whole route [see above]. I stayed ahead maybe half a block and looked at obstacles, checked what I thought we should do on the drawing, and then went back to the operator to get him to set the trailer in the right direction to clear it.

How was this different than one of your usual jobs?

Lofts: All of the operators have moved much larger, heavier objects. This was unusual because it was such a historically significant and invaluable piece, and the fact that we didn’t realize how many people would be watching. As big as the shuttle is, it’s still extremely delicate. You couldn’t touch anything with it because these black panels that were the heat shields would break and then…They have some spares and they could replace them, but it would not have been a good feeling to have damaged it.

Dominy: It was interesting because it was such a one-of-a-kind item. The shuttle only weighed about 150,000 pounds, so it was very light compared to some of the things we haul. We’ve hauled up to, I think, 2,500 tons. So the actual, physical transport was relatively simple. The equipment configuration and everything was not the challenge, the challenge was just getting around everything.

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