A look back at Endeavour, the youngest member of NASA's shuttle fleet

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The history of Endeavour begins on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight from Cape Canaveral, leading to the deaths of all seven crew members. The disaster was a grim day in NASA’s history, but engineers got to work quickly on a replacement. They had parts left over from the construction of Discovery and Atlantis, and all their new shuttle needed was a name. In a nationwide contest, school children came up with "Endeavour," the name of the ship Captain James Cook sailed to the Sandwich Islands in the 1700s.

The Endeavour space shuttle was built in four years, and flew out on its first mission, STS-49, on May 7, 1992. Ken Phillips, California Science Center’s aerospace curator, says it made history on its maiden voyage.

"By the time Endeavour flew, it was an extremely aggressive mission," says Phillips. "They had to rescue a stray satellite, bring it into the payload bay, repair it, and release it. And the mission was touch and go. They couldn't get the satellite to cooperate initially, so they had to improvise and create an effective way to do it, which they did."

After its first mission, Endeavour racked up a series of accomplishments, including becoming the first shuttle to make a repair mission to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, and the first shuttle to deliver an American module to the International Space Station. Endeavour was also the first shuttle to carry a female African-American astronaut, Mae Jemison.

"From Endeavour's maiden voyage," says Phillips, "it did some pretty amazing things - in our opinion some of the most iconic missions ever flown in the shuttle program."

Endeavour was retired last year, when NASA ended the shuttle program after 30 years and 135 missions.

Phillips says Endeavour could have done much more.

"I look at it like this: when you buy a brand new Ferrari, it's rated for 100,000 miles on the engine. Then you put on 20,000 miles and somebody takes it away from you. Endeavour is a pristine, space-worthy vehicle, retired well short of the 100 flights that each of the orbiters was built to fly.

"But NASA is by no means out of business," says Phillips. "The reason the space shuttle was moth-balled is because NASA doesn't have the funding to maintain the shuttle as the main vehicle to get from the surface of Earth to low-earth orbit. So they farmed out the low-earth-orbit to the commercial sector. And then NASA is free - which is their dream and mission - to go for more aggressive, deep space, exciting stuff, and ultimately build up to a human crew that lands on Mars."

In the meantime, Endeavour will be turned into an exhibit at the California Science Center. If all goes well, in five years a specially-designed wing will house the shuttle, which will be mounted vertically, with real solid rocket boosters, an external fuel tank, and a reproduction gantry so viewers can get as close to its history as possible.

"It’s an incredible teaching tool," says Phillips. "It has absolutely every wear and tear mark revealing what it went through, the various phases of flight. It's unlike anything in our collection, and unlike anything that all but Smithsonian and a few other places like Kennedy Space Center have. It's an amazing artifact."

For all of our Endeavour coverage, go to kpcc.org/shuttle

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