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)

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Were the crowds distracting? Did anybody get in the way?

Dominy: The LAPD and L.A. County Sheriff had several hundred officers out to help with crowd control. There were so many people around, it was really amazing. That was actually one of the neatest things about it: all the people, all the spectators. Everybody was just really in a good mood. There were no problems, and it was just a great feeling to see all the people who were so happy to see this thing come through their neighborhoods.

Lofts: The police did pretty good the first night, but after that, the crowds were just so large, there wasn’t anywhere near enough police to keep them away. When you have a wingtip that’s hanging over a sidewalk where all these people are, and you’re trying to watch the clearance on a tree, they’d be standing there flashing a camera in your eyes. So…they weren’t always a help, let’s put it that way. But then you would clear it and the crowd would roar. There were huge cheering sections. There were some long, trying days and they’d give you a lot of stimulus with their appreciation. And you’re talking about Martin Luther King [Boulevard] in downtown Los Angeles; it’s not upscale by any means. Sometimes someone would stand out and get their picture taken and you’d hear them say, “Man, this is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in my life.” Even the police captain said, “We ought to do this again next week. The crime – we haven’t had any, they’re all here watching this.”

Who knew that all you had to do was pull a space shuttle through the city! Was there anyone who complained?

Lofts: No one that we witnessed. Some of the businesses took advantage of it. It was good for business because there were lots of people, so any McDonalds or something like that was just swamped with people, obviously. But we were pretty much in our own little capsule, too. I’m sure there were some businesses that may have been inconvenienced, due to the road being shut down and blocking traffic into their establishment, but nothing that we were ever aware of.

Did you ever get to take a step back and let it sink in how cool this was?

Lofts:  When the 747 that brought it from Florida did a fly-by at the airport, it was just tremendous. They landed and taxied out to where we were standing, and this guy steps out with an enormous American flag and it was just…it couldn’t help but put your heart in your throat. It was a very rewarding moment. After that the work began, and during the move there were not many occasions when you could sit back and relax – it was a lot of work.

Anything else you want to add?

Lofts: This was definitely not a one-man show; it was a huge group effort. The operators were probably the most high-profile, though at any given point I don’t think anyone had a clue who was really operating it. Often the operator was 60 or 70 feet out in front of it, and the guys really controlling it were on the wingtips telling the operator what to do. And other people were watching for wires or proximity to trees or branches or buildings. Then there were the crews who moved all the wires ahead of time and took down all the street lighting and had to go put it back, the unnamed people that played a large part but that people don’t really give any consideration to.

The Sarens team was led by project manager Ken Carrion, with operators Gordon Lofts, Mike Lofts, Steve Mitchell, John Palmer, Louie Bello and Tel Reynolds, and engineers Frank Dominy and Joe Baddour.

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