District 7's Space Shuttle Endeavors: Caltrans Staff Play Key Role in Final Mission
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During its 25 missions, the Space Shuttle Endeavour traveled at speeds in excess of 17,500 miles per hour. For its final mission through the streets of Los Angeles to the California Science Center, it topped out at just two miles per hour. For 12 halting miles, the space-battered Endeavour dodged trees and utility poles, glided under power lines, and delighted thousands of spectators who lined the streets to see its 26th and last journey, October 11-13, 2012.
At the risk of stating the obvious, you can’t haul an 80-ton space shuttle through the streets of Los Angeles without making some advance arrangements. Among those advance arrangements: getting the necessary permits from Caltrans for the portions of the journey that impact the state’s right of way, namely, Lincoln Boulevard and the Manchester Boulevard overcrossing. (The overcrossing is actually two bridges: one over I-405 and one over the collector road leading to the La Cienega Boulevard off-ramp.) Caltrans required two types of permits for Mission 26 — transportation and encroachment.
“The transportation permit, which was reviewed and approved by headquarters, relates to the size of the transported load. Endeavour is oversize in terms of length, height, width and weight,” said Office of Permits Chief Zoe Yue. “The transportation permit process reviews the proposed load and approves the proposed route.”
After the transportation permit was approved, Caltrans and the transport contractor, The Sarens Group, worked out the encroachment details, addressing issues such as closures and clearing obstacles.
For example, Sarens wanted to close one lane in each direction of Lincoln Boulevard. The encroachment permit, however, required them to close the highway in both directions, with the closure window limited to 8:30 p.m. on October 11 to 5 a.m. on October 12. (The shuttle crossed Lincoln Boulevard at about 2:30 a.m. on October 12.) The permit also allowed Sarens to remove the median barrier to facilitate the crossing.
Not only did the Endeavour transport present a unique permitting challenge due to the sheer size of the shuttle and the route, Caltrans Permits also had to review and process the permits quickly, faster even than an ordinary permit application. Suffice it to say, the Permits team put in some very long days. And just when they thought they were almost done, there was another complication: a commercial filming request. Toyota wanted to film a commercial featuring a Tundra pickup truck pulling the space shuttle across the Manchester Boulevard bridges.
If it strikes you as unlikely that a standard pickup truck would be allowed to pull a 300,000-pound load — an actual space shuttle in this case — across two freeway bridges, you would be right. This is most definitely not in the guidelines. Typically, a three-axle tractor would be required for a transport of this magnitude. But after an initial denial, the request was reconsidered, and headquarters was open to finding ways to accommodate the filming.
There were a couple factors working in favor of the filming. One was the short distance — the shuttle would be pulled across an overcrossing, not hauled for miles on a state facility. Second, Toyota ran tests showing that the Tundra was able to successfully pull similar loads. That’s important because Caltrans didn’t want a massive space shuttle sitting on a freeway overcrossing behind a stalled pickup, weakening the structure with every passing minute.
To avoid this scenario, when the Tundra idea was first pitched, Permits staff had suggested that the filming occur on city streets instead of over I-405, which might have been a workable solution were it not for the dolly system used. On city streets, Endeavour traveled on a custom-designed self-propelled dolly, a driverless vehicle operated by remote control. But for the transport over I-405, Caltrans required that the dolly be pulled. The reason: the pulled dolly was lighter, distributed the shuttle’s weight more evenly and put less stress on the bridges.
Ultimately, Caltrans made the filming part of Sarens’ encroachment permit, green-lighting the Manchester Boulevard commercial shoot and no doubt prompting the Toyota marketing team to scream with glee. But there was a caveat: there will be no do-overs, no take two, only one chance to get the shot.
And this is where things got interesting for Structure Maintenance & Investigations Engineers Renee Au and Matthew Monajemi. They were charged with examining the bridges before, during and after the transport … and may have had a secondary role as well: accidental actors swept up in a pickup truck commercial.
“We had to visually inspect the bridge deck, superstructures and substructures, and document the condition,” said Au. “The production crew asked us to try to stay behind the wing tips so we weren’t in the shot. If we were, they’re going to ask us to sign a waiver saying that we won’t demand compensation for our role in the commercial.”
Even if it turns out that they didn’t have cameos in the commercial, Au and Monajemi did have a small directing role: determining where the shuttle should travel on the bridges (assistant director credit?). They measured and marked the location of the longitudinal supports, which indicated the path least likely to cause structure damage. Not that anyone was worried about that.
“We were confident there wouldn’t be any problems, but we always have to be on the safe side,” said Au.
In keeping with the safety focus, the California Highway Patrol implemented a traffic break to ensure that no vehicles were under the bridges during the crossing. That way, in the unlikely event that there was spalling or falling debris, motorists wouldn’t be impacted. As expected, the crossing was flawless. There was no spalling, only a nominal traffic delay, and the bridges appear to be no worse for the wear.
“This was a successful operation because everyone worked well together — Permits, Maintenance, Structure Maintenance & Investigations, the Traffic Management Team, and headquarters. Everyone was responsive and professional,” said Yue.
Because they worked so well together, about seven minutes after Endeavour began its journey across the Manchester Boulevard bridges just before midnight on October 12, it safely reached the other side, right on schedule. And about two dozen Caltrans employees can say they played an important role in a truly amazing and historic event — one that’s not just once in a lifetime, but just once, period.
Missed the Endeavour transport? Check out the video below. You can also see the shuttle up close and personal at the California Science Center’s Samuel Oschin Pavilion.