The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 18, 2014

His Endeavour: Giving old shuttle parts a new space

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — It was the type of weather that would have scrubbed a space shuttle launch.

The rain was relentless. Water streamed down Dennis Jenkins’ glasses, dripping off the tip of his nose, as he surveyed the scrap yard not far from where the shuttles once blasted into orbit.

A box overflowing with keyboards and wires. Nearly a dozen file cabinets tipped on their sides. A small mountain of cardboard boxes, falling apart in the downpour.

Each box bore a sticker emblazoned with the blue NASA logo. “Critical space item,” they read. “Handle with extreme care.”

Jenkins directed his team to a pair of 7-foot-tall contraptions next to a chain-link fence — escape baskets that once sat near the top of the shuttle, ready to slide astronauts to safety should something go wrong before launch.

It took all four men to carefully move the baskets, using a forklift to hoist each up and set it into a trailer. Once they were settled, Jenkins circled the trailer, pausing to tuck a canvas flap back into place.

He turned and gave his crew a thumbs-up. “Perfect,” he said.

Jenkins spent 30-plus years — his entire career — sending the shuttles into space. Now, with the program part of a bygone era of exploration, the 57-year-old works for the California Science Center, helping officials figure out how to display their own orbiter, Endeavour.

The Exposition Park museum wants to showcase its crown jewel as if it’s on the launch pad, a display that will take thousands of pieces to pull off — parts that are scattered at NASA facilities, museums and other places across the U.S. Most are one of a kind and impossible to replicate.

So for the past year, Jenkins has crisscrossed the country, scouring NASA scrap yards and asking old colleagues if they have what he needs to rebuild the shuttle launch stack, piece by piece.

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