Seeing Space Shuttle Enterprise From the Q Train: A Close Encounter of the Manhattan Bridge Kind


See C.S. Muncy’s photos from the Shuttle landing at JFK

Knowing the Space Shuttle Enterprise was going to be arriving today in New York City, I was extremely pissed off to realize I had a doctor’s appointment which would preclude me from actively viewing it, and I’d most likely be underground in the subway when it flew over the Hudson, guaranteeing I wouldn’t even catch a glimpse of it. I was also glad, but extremely jealous, that Voice contributor C.S. Muncy would get a front row seat at JFK Airport. My self-pity doubled down when I listened to the Brian Lehrer Show’s call in segment of similar space geeks from their perches around the city and in New Jersey.

My only hope was that, in my subway travels on the Q train, I might, maybe have the chance to snatch a glimpse in the three minute window in which the train crossed the Manhattan Bridge. This, I knew, was an implausibly long shot. Using extremely scientific reasoning, I estimated that the odds of the 747 ferrying the Enterprise lifting off from Washington, D.C., flying over the Verrazano, passing by the Statue of Liberty, going up the Hudson, and swinging back over the harbor just as my Q train was on the bridge were about 3,720 to 1…the same odds C-3P0 gave the Millenium Falcon of “successfully navigating an asteroid field.”

Well, the odds were with Captain Han Solo and also with me, because I had a close encounter with the Enterprise at exactly the right moment.

I knew Enterprise was en route to the city when I got into the subway station, where gray clouds loomed ominously, and I assumed it must have arrived in New York airspace by the time my Q train pulled out of Atlantic/Pacific. I was sure I wouldn’t see it on its first pass. By the time the train finally pulled above ground in Brooklyn Heights, the sun was popping out. At least someone will get to see the ship arrive with blue sky and sunshine, I thought, but probably not me: no sign of a megafat 747 anywhere in sight.

I did notice, though, that there were numerous helicopters fluttering about at low altitudes. Could the shuttle have gone one way, but not back the other yet? As I checked my phone for news on Twitter, I had pretty much abandoned my hopes as the Q got to the apex of the Manhattan Bridge and started its descent towards Chinatown.

Twitter almost ruined my chance encounter. Fortunately I looked up, and there she was: the Enterprise, a real life Space Shuttle*, flying high over the Statue of Liberty. In the remaining 90 seconds my Q train traversed the East River, the 747 did the same and headed towards Bay Ridge en route to JFK. She was nothing short of beautiful (and far less terrifying for well warned New Yorkers than when Air Force One buzzed the harbor in 2009 and scared the bejeezus out of people).

I had seen the Enterprise at rest once previously. I saw the late Columbia on its launch pad when I was at Space Camp in 1989, and multiple times a year as a child in California, I’d hear the shuttles return to earth as their sonic booms rattled my home’s windows. These were in the days when the shuttles routinely landed at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, before the they had parachutes which helped them to land in Florida (and to bypass the costly cross country flight piggy-backing atop a 747, like Enterprise did today).

But I had never seen a shuttle flying with my own eyes prior to today, assisted or not. It was magical to catch the Enterprise in that small window of time, and to realize, at the height of the bridge, I was closer to it than I would have been on the ground. It looked somewhat foreign to me, I think, because from my vantage point, I couldn’t see the underside of the shuttle at all; instead of seeing the signature black-and-white I’m used to in a shuttle’s flight home, the whole massive flying blob of shuttle-plus-747 looked white.

Still, I involuntarily yelled out, “Look! The Space Shuttle!” to my fellow straphangers. They were unimpressed. The woman sitting across from me was as giddy as I was, and she was also shocked to see it after thinking she wouldn’t be able to. But no one else seemed to care, sinking back into their iPhones or iPads (if they even looked up at all).

Still, it was an amazing thing to see the Enterprise in flight before she spends a couple months at JFK, then makes a barge trip up the Hudson to the USS Intrepid, where she’ll spend the rest of her days.

Here’s another picture C.S. took at JFK. He’ll have a slideshow up soon.

@steven_thrasher |

* I am not one of those haters that considers the Enterprise anything less than a “real” Space Shuttle. True, OK, it hasn’t been to space. But the Enterprise did fly important test flights in 1977, where it contributed greatly to the Space Shuttle program, the first space transportation system (this phrase is where “STS” comes from in mission names) which could land in a specified spot like a plane (and not with parachutes who the hell knows where in the ocean or Siberia) . When the Enterprise was dumped off a 747 over California in those test flights, it did exactly what all subsequent successful shuttle flights did: very little, except return the crew safely. Shuttles are called “flying bricks” because they basically fall from their orbit in a controlled fashion and slow down from about 17,5000 MPH to about 200 MPH by the time they reach the ground. It’s been noted that the Enterprise doesn’t have engines, which means it couldn’t fly to space (even though the external Solid Rocket Boosters do most of the heaving lifting to get an orbiter up into orbit). But when it comes to landing, no shuttle uses engines once they start gliding back to Earth. The only power they need is to move their rudder and flaps…just like the Enterprise did 34 years ago.

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