(Cape Canavera, FL)l- A black granite plaque marks the spot where space shuttle Endeavour rolled to a stop to end its final mission on June 1 last year, 9,641 feet from the northwest end of Kennedy Space Center's runway.
Around 7 a.m. Monday, a modified 747 jumbo jet carrying Endeavour will take off from the 15,000-foot runway officially called the Shuttle Landing Facility, marking its last use by a shuttle.
The shuttle program's final ferry flight will take Endeavour to its permanent display site in Los Angeles. It follows Discovery's departure from Kennedy and Enterprise's commute from Washington, D.C. to New York City, both in April.
"Those are hard partings," said Michael Ciannilli, a NASA test director and landing recovery director. "A lot of the workforce here worked their entire life on these vehicles and gave their blood, sweat and tears, along with their family support, to do this mission, and now it's saying goodbye to that time in their life."
The runway will remain, but NASA doesn't want to pay to operate and maintain it anymore.
The agency recently requested proposals, due Sept. 24, from government or commercial partners that could take over the facility within a year.
"We do continue to believe that it's an asset that is required for Kennedy Space Center," said Joyce Riquelme, director of the Center Planning and Development Office. "We're looking for alternate ways of managing it at low cost to NASA."
NASA envisions commercial space planes launching and landing on the runway, taking people or payloads on suborbital and orbital flights.
XCOR Aerospace recently announced plans to test and eventually manufacture its reusable Lynx suborbital spacecraft at KSC, flying as often as four times a day.
Space Florida and the Titusville-Cocoa Airport Authority have publicly expressed interest in managing the facility known as the SLF.
With its shuttle days over, Center Director Bob Cabana is mulling a name change.
Riquelme said one option was Space Landing Facility, which would preserve the original acronym but fails to capture the anticipated horizontal launches.
The top contenders now are the Space Launch and Landing Facility or Horizontal Launch and Landing Facility.
From the beginning of the shuttle program, a runway was as important as a launch pad.
Unlike any U.S. space vehicle before it, the shuttle would not splash down in the ocean but glide back through the atmosphere and touch down like an airplane.
By 1976, a three-mile concrete strip as wide as a football field was open for business at KSC.
But it was not until the 10th shuttle mission in 1984 that NASA's confidence in the orbiters' handling and weather conditions combined to permit a landing in Florida. Earlier landings were at Edwards Air Force Base in California, with one at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.
"It was a revolutionary concept," Ciannilli said of shuttle landings. "You're going to fire your engines over the Pacific Ocean, dropping out of orbit, and you've got to land on this little strip of land in Florida surrounded by swamps and gators - you want to make sure you're ready to do that."
Challenger blew out a tire on that first landing in 1984, prompting a smoothing out of the deep grooves that had been carved to help water runoff.
Orbiter wheels touched down 77 more times at KSC through 2011.
The last three "wheels stop" locations are commemorated with etchings on the runway's centerline.
A granite plaque sits parallel to each etching on the runway's eastern edge, where they won't interfere with ongoing operations. They note the final landing date and location where the nose gear stopped, and some career statistics: total number of missions flown, days in space and miles flown.
Designed by local artist Chad Stout, owner of C Spray Glass Blasting in Cocoa, the 2.5-inch-thick markers are made to to last.
"The shuttle program wanted to preserve our history," Ciannilli said. "As time goes on, it's easy to forget about what happened in the past and kind of lose some of that, so we wanted to prevent that from happening."
A 44-year-old Merritt Island resident and Florida Tech graduate who grew up building models of shuttle Columbia, Ciannilli remembers the electric feeling among the recovery convoy that gathered at the runway for landings.
Flying at Mach 25, a shuttle had begun its re-entry halfway around the world and would be home within an hour.
Twin sonic booms announced the orbiter's approach, building excitement. After it touched down and rolled to a stop - 58 times during the day and 20 times at night at KSC - the convoy swarmed the orbiter to ensure the safety of the crew and vehicle.
Eventually, for all but two of the 135 shuttle missions, a smiling crew emerged.
"That was very emotional because you really felt an ownership and a responsibility for those folks," said Ciannilli. "They got on the vehicle that you worked on, and everybody here felt that. They trusted their lives with us. So when they got off that ship and smiled and waved to their families on the camera, it made us feel really good that we could bring them home."