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<p>NASA/Bill Ingalls</p>

NASA/Bill Ingalls

How To Move A Space Shuttle

To shuttle the Endeavour to its museum home, Los Angelenos took down street lights, power poles and hundreds of trees. What’s more, they took their beloved cars off the roads.

LA is a car town. It has the highest vehicle population, per capita, in the world — and not nearly enough road to fit them on. It’s not peak hour, but peak hours, 180 minutes each, morning and afternoon. Cars inch forward, side-by-side, across four to six lanes at 16, 20, 22 kilometres per hour, east on the Santa Monica Freeway, north on the Harbor, southeast on the Hollywood, to through downtown — through, because in Los Angeles, downtown is not a destination, just a place where freeways meet.

The busiest of these freeways — the busiest in America in fact — is the San Diego Freeway, known as “the 405”, referring to its interstate highway number. On an average weekend, more than 500,000 vehicles pass along the 405 at its busiest point.

So when city officials announced the first in a series of shutdowns of the 405 in July 2011 — Los Angeles went into a blind panic. Radio deejays issued dire end-of-days predictions about the closure’s effect — and car owners were begged to make other travel arrangements or, better yet, just stay at home.

On an average weekend more than 500,000 vehicles pass under the Santa Monica Freeway.

In the event, “Carmageddon”, as it was dubbed, passed without major incident. To everyone’s surprise, instead of engaging in this car fracas, Angelenos took the weekend off! They stayed at home. The cars remained in their driveways. For one summer weekend, LA quit its habit.

Angelenos felt the effect on their lungs. Air analysis carried out by the University of California showed an 83 per cent improvement in air quality near the freeway, 75 per cent around the city’s generally more affluent west side and 25 per cent for the greater metropolitan region. (The analysis was dubbed “Carmaheaven”.)

This being Tinseltown, there had to be a sequel. Two weeks ago, on September 29 and 30, a 16 km stretch of the San Diego Freeway was shut down as part of a USD1 billion program to add a pair of (yes, two) car-pool lanes — for anyone who drives with a passenger rather than solo.

For Carmageddon II, the freeway was ultimately closed for 45 hours. And this time, the climate of fear had been replaced by desire for hijinks. For many, the 10 empty lanes beckoned like a party dare.

Defying the shutdown, former professional skateboarder Cindy Whitehead took her board for a two-minute roll from the freeway’s highest point, Sepulveda Pass, just after dawn on Sunday, playing to the cameras of her husband, Ian Logan. Earlier, a newlywed couple on their honeymoon, perhaps trying for a snarl-free start to married life, were picked up by the California Highway Patrol at an entrance ramp to the freeway off Sunset Boulevard. Also rescued/detained, were a couple from Europe who claimed to be lost.

None of these chancers was as imaginative as the three friends who, at 6am on the Saturday of Carmageddon I, set up a table, chairs and dinner service, including wine glasses, for a three-minute photo op. These vignettes are emblematic of LA’s obsessive relationship with its roads and its cars.

Fast forward, if that term can be used in this context, to October 12, and the third installment in the Carmageddon saga was in production. This time, there was a spaceship.

Traffic stopped and the streets emptied over the weekend for the relocation of the decommissioned Endeavour space shuttle, from LAX airport to the California Science Centre, a 19km journey made by the largest object ever to move over the city’s streets.

The shuttle flew 25 space missions before being retired last year. Its landing last month, attached to a 747, stopped the traffic on the freeway that runs past LAX. Its passage over land, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa promised, would be “the mother of all parades”.

The combination of the shuttle’s weight (77 tonnes) and size (a wingspan of 24 metres, with a tail 18 metres high) forced officials to reconsider this promise, if only for a moment. After all, the shuttle may have been a mere fragment in space, but in this environment, it has to be seen as oversized, and someone, somewhere, suddenly was prompted to calculate that such dimensions can only barely be accommodated on throughfares with a building-to-building width of 34 metres.

But “barely” was ultimately deemed to be enough to let the space pageant go ahead. Among the unavoidable hairpin bends, and the varying road widths, officials said there would be points along the way where the clearance between wingtips and buildings would be mere centimetres. At other times, the wings would overshadow footpaths and driveways.

By 1930, Southern California already had the highest per-capita ownership of cars in the world.

The visual effect was of some giant movie prop, somehow misplaced and relocated in Middle America. In its United Airlines aircraft hangar, the shuttle looked merely massive. But rolling slowly from points A to B, its every deviation from a straight line meticulously measured and choreographed, it looked like some otherwordly device, captured and displayed for an enraptured and entranced populace.

The shrubbery toll was 393 trees removed, to allow for the extended wing clearance. Those that remain are a stand of pine trees, planted alongside either side of Martin Luther King Boulevard, to commemorate the slain civil rights leader. So the shuttle, or rather, it’s massive transporter, performed a slow-motion slalom down the boulevard, swivelling left and right in order that the trees remain unharmed.

The roads themselves required reinforcement to bear their 77-tonne load. So, over the past few weeks, 2,700 metal plates, each weighing 1.3 tonnes, had been laid, welded in place, then set with asphalt.

Power poles, power lines, traffic signals and other street furniture would be disconnected and/or removed to allow for the shuttle’s passing. Its journey began around 3am on Friday, local time. A 1.6 km safety zone extended ahead of the shuttle, with streets and footpaths closed to the public. Instead, the crowds gathered at intersections, in front yards and side streets, in their tens of thousands.

As with Carmageddons I and II, it was a road show. The one thing that unites this city. No word yet on its air quality impact.

In the 1940s and ’50s, the state of California tore up Los Angeles’s tram and train lines with the eager encouragement of car, oil and tyre companies, although historians have noted that public transport had already become its own worst enemy, charging expensive fares and providing shoddy service. But the unequal nature of the private/public-transport contest had been evident for the best part of two decades. By 1930, Southern California already had the highest per-capita ownership of cars in the world.

<p>Gina Ferazzi-Pool/Getty</p>

Gina Ferazzi-Pool/Getty

The empty 405 runs underneath the 10 during Carmageddon on September 29, 2012

Since then California’s drivers and driving have surpassed every other growth metric, particularly in Los Angeles.

For example, in the 21 years from 1969, California’s population increased by more than 50 per cent from 19.7 million to 30 million. For the same period, licenced drivers increased by 75 per cent, from 11.4 million to 19.9 million.

In 2011, the 37 million who call California home owned 31.8 million cars, with a million more new vehicles entering the state each year.

That mass of people, and their possessions that double as means of transport and status symbol, has long since created its own economic and social climate.

This car culture gave the world — or at very least showed the possibilities for — the convertible, the carport, the freeway, the drive-in theatre, the drive-in restaurant, the drive-in church for a drive-in funeral (the perfect way to send off the victim of a car accident), the drive-by shooting and the Sigalert. This last is the formal announcement of a closure of a freeway lane due to an accident or other causes — which of course has its own website and smartphone app.

Outsiders look upon this infatuation and its consequences and gape.

“Sometimes, it staggers my imagination that people are still so crazy about their cars,” an American executive of the Nissan company once said. “You watch them crawling along the freeway. They could walk faster. Then, you look at their cars, clean, gleaming, polished objects of love. It’s hard to think of Californians without them.”

This was Gerald Hirshberg vice-president of the Japanese company’s American design headquarters, speaking in 1989.

This car culture gave the world the convertible, the carport, the freeway, the drive-in theatre, the drive-in restaurant, the drive-in church for a drive-in funeral.

Earlier that decade, with plans for a new luxury model in the works, Nissan sent one of its design executives to the wealthy LA suburb of Laguna Niguel. There, he stayed with a local family for several weeks, the better to understand how the American consumer lived, worked, played and shopped, and where a car fit in with all that.

That design executive, Takashi Oka, subsequently insisted on oversized door handles for the new model, after noticing that the American homes he entered had large front-door handles.

“He wanted to make the statement that entering the car was like entering home,” a Nissan publicist said at the time.

The new car was called the Infiniti. It sold for the-then premium price of USD38,000.

Oka’s observations proved to be astute and durable. Although a relative also-ran in the American car market, the Infiniti remains a key part of the Nissan range to this day.

Since then, the freeways have filled to gridlock, to the point that an empty freeway, even an empty street, is a sign of something unusual, or worse. Traffic unites LA, but it takes a bitumen vacuum to truly excite its curiosity and community spirit.

Carmageddon did it twice, then the space shuttle did it, and Ciclavia, the bi-annual cycling festival that bisects the city on 15 km of closed streets now routinely attracts 100,000 participants.

<p>David McNew/Getty</p>

David McNew/Getty

Spectators watch the space shuttle Endeavour pass by, October 13, 2012

Yet those numbers are nothing beside the masses who gathered in late February and early March 2012 to watch the nocturnal passage of a rock.

Not just any rock, but a 345-tonne granite boulder, excavated from a quarry in the desert mountains east of Los Angeles, then carried 160 km to the LA County Museum of Art, where it became an art installation called Levitated Mass.

Who can explain the wisdom and decisions of crowds? The numbers of observers of the rock generated their own momentum as it moved through the LA suburbs, so that tens of thousands would gather each night to watch and celebrate its passing, as it was borne at 8 km/h, by a trailer with 196 wheels over 22 axles.

Of course, it wouldn’t be LA without some film footage being spent on the event. Documentarian Doug Pray captured the delivery of the rock in a film called The Boulder.

“It felt like this march bringing the city together,” Pray said. “And I realise that sounds totally corny and cliché.”

Michael Heizer, the 67-year-old “land artist” who devised Levitated Mass, and who wore a cowboy hat and sunglasses to its official unveiling, had a more prosaic explanation: “LA is an automobile culture, and what you saw was just the biggest automobile in town goin’ down the road,” he joked. “That’s why you got all excited. You just love cars.”

Too many low freeway underpasses dictated that the rock’s passage had to be along so-called “surface” or non-freeway streets. This was a street-level spectacle.

Driving on a freeway takes you on a relatively direct route from point A to point B, with the ever-attendant possibility of becoming stuck in traffic, but detached from the environment through which you are passing.

Driving on a surface street puts you back in that world, of houses, shops, traffic signals, people, where everything that passes is on a more-or-less human scale.

Then came this monolith floating slowly past your driveway — 345 tonnes of art and engineering and imagination.

Like the shuttle and the highway shut-downs, that boulder showed the human impulse to see and experience something extraordinary was as alive as ever even among car-bound Angelenos. So long as you can see it from the road.

3 comments on this story
by benny

any reason why they didnt just cut the wings off and put them back on again at the other end?

October 16, 2012 @ 10:47am
by max

@benny - not possible, wings are part of the hull structure. Shuttle was not built like plane, where wings would be a separate fixtures that could be easily removed and re-attached.

October 18, 2012 @ 9:05am
by Gavin B

Fantastic story - great read. Having been in California / LA just after Carmaggedon II, you certainly know that Californians (and LA folk) sure do love their cars! Freeways are many... but so are the cars; leaving home at 9, 11 or 2 and its the same level of crazy traffic we would consider 'peak hour' here in Aus!

October 22, 2012 @ 3:52pm
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