The "Welcome to our universe" sign at the entrance to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
was probably illegible by the crew transporting Endeavour overhead. But there was no question about the message delivered by the scientists, engineers and other staffers who
gathered on high ground under a scorching sun to say farewell to an old friend.
JPL is among the Southland science bastions that have a special bond with Endeavour, having teamed with it to deliver technology and experiments into space.
"We feel that we were allowed to pay tribute to Endeavour and at the same time it was paying tribute to us as well," said Steven Bard, a JPL scientist who relied on Endeavour for several
of his projects.
One of them was the so-called "inflatable" antenna made of Mylar and packed into a box the size of a table. In space, Endeavour's astronauts unfolded it into the size of a tennis court.
JPL's upper parking lot, the designated viewing area for the flyover, was jam-packed with staffers who had Endeavour stories to share.
Chemist Margie Homer worked on the atmospheric analyzer dubbed the Electronic Nose, or "E-Nose" for short. It went into space in 2008.
"When I watched our E-Nose launch on Endeavour, I cried," recalled Homer, preparing to be moved again when Endeavour appeared on the horizon.
Also peering south awaiting Endeavour was Amit Sen, who worked on the mission credited with saving the Hubble Space Telescope. Sen vividly recalls traveling to the Kennedy Space Center with the team placing the new Wide Field and Planetary Camera Two in Endeavour's bay, and later coaching the astronauts how to install it on the Hubble orbiter.
"And a few days later, wonderful pictures, we could not believe," recalled Sen. That was in 1993. Over the next 16 years, Hubble sent some 135,000 images back to Earth before it was brought the next-generation camera.
Personal cameras at JPL were ready whe Endeavour finally appeared, piggybacking its carrier 747. Suddenly, conversations stopped and the JPL throng went silent with awe and even reverence. But moments later, as the roar of the F-18 chase planes reverberated off the hills, the crowd sent up a cheer.
"This was just so exciting to see this and hear everybody screaming as it flew overhead," Bard said. "It was more exciting than we even thought it would be."