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February 25, 2024

JHU alum steered shuttle Endeavor to L.A.

By MATT PARMAN | October 25, 2012

We all know that Hopkins alumni include a president of the U.S and a mayor of NYC, but who would have expected that one of our alums would end up snagging a space shuttle?  After a nearly 20 year career, the Space Shuttle Endeavour recently completed its journey to its new home at the California Science Center (CSC) in Los Angeles.  Hopkins alum Ken Phillips, Curator for Aerospace Science at CSC, was instrumental in bringing the shuttle to Southern California.

Endeavour followed a treacherous route along 12 miles of LA city streets between LAX and the CSC before arriving at its new exhibit in Exposition Park.  Along every street were a seemingly endless amount of obstacles that the team in charge of the move had to navigate to avoid.  Every tree, telephone poll, and building presented a challenge.  Many trees actually had to be cut down to allow Endeavour’s 78 foot wingspan to maneuver its way to its destination.  Endeavour’s journey was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime sight for the estimated 1.5 million people that saw the shuttle on its way to the CSC.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Phillips said that these obstructions led to the operation taking 17 hours longer than originally anticipated.

“[There were] literally thousands of logistical procedures that needed to take place,” Phillips said. This delay is actually normal, though, for such logistically massive undertakings, with Phillips adding that he was pleased with how the move turned out. “[It was] fantastic, everything we’d hoped it would be,” he said.

This was certainly a proud moment not only for the CSC, but for the entire state of California.

“We think of this as a gift to the state of California,” Phillips said before going on to mention that all the space shuttles were manufactured in the state.

Phillips got his doctorate in Environmental Engineering from Hopkins before going on to work for the RAND Corporation. There, he worked on environmental and energy policy before transitioning to military and civilian applications of space-based surveillance. His work on satellite technology eventually led him to his current job as Curator of Aerospace Science at CSC in 1990.

Phillips’ mission was to reinterpret the CSC’s collection so that it would be based on science and technology rather than history. The CSC’s aerospace exhibits are unique in that they are experimental and interactive in a way that facilitates better scientific learning for visitors. For Phillips, his job comes down to science education and learning how to better teach scientific principles to the public.

As early as 1991, Phillips knew he wanted a space shuttle for the collection. He saw his chance in 2004 when President Bush announced a plan to retire the shuttles after the Columbia disaster in 2003. After the last of the shuttle missions in 2011, the shuttles needed a place to be displayed to the public. Because of the vast number of artifacts associated with the shuttles — well over a million according to Phillips — the Smithsonian decided not to accept the shuttles from NASA. Instead, different organizations would apply to NASA for the chance to have a shuttle reside on their grounds.

For Phillips, winning a shuttle for the CSC had meaning beyond the obvious boon for the collection that he oversaw. Phillips’ good friend Ronald Erwin McNair passed away in the Challenger disaster of 1986 after an O-ring failure in one of the rocket boosters during liftoff. The Space Shuttle Endeavour that now occupies a space at the CSC was originally meant to be a replacement for Challenger.

NASA is now entering a new age of space science and exploration. Although the retirement of the shuttle program elicited a wide array of responses from the public, Phillips expressed support for the decision.

“From a practical perspective, it made a lot of sense,” he said.

By turning to the private sector to fill in the vacuum left after the end of the shuttle program, NASA opens up new opportunities for itself and can potentially save money.

“Allowing the private sector to step up to the plate freed up NASA to undertake deep space and exploration missions,” Phillips said. These are the types of missions that NASA could not devote sufficient resources to while it was still responsible for providing transportation to and from the International Space Station and for satellite deployment and repair missions. Private companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are now being contracted by NASA to develop and launch space vehicles that will be used for various missions that would previously have been the responsibility of the shuttles.

With companies like SpaceX slowly beginning to pick up the slack leftover from the shuttles, NASA can look at new missions to Mars, the edge of our solar system and even beyond.

“NASA is headed precisely in the right direction,” Philips said. He cautioned, though, that although there is a place for robots in space, there should be a consistent focus on manned spaceflight missions as well.

Anyone visiting Los Angeles can pay the Endeavour a visit starting on Oct. 30 when it opens to the public.

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