In a predawn operation Sunday at Kennedy Airport, two giant cranes lifted the space shuttle Enterprise off the jumbo jet it rode piggyback up the East Coast and placed it on trailer, completing another stage of its journey to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
Enterprise, the 57,000-pound orbiter prototype that paved the way for NASA's space shuttle program, was gripped by a specially made sling supported by the cranes and moved inch by meticulous inch.
The "demating" process, which required three weeks of preparation, lasted about 10 hours and began late Saturday when Enterprise and the Boeing 747 were rolled out from Hangar 12. The separation occurred at about 2:30 a.m.
Contractors, NASA and Intrepid experts in reflective vests and hard hats looked as small as ants working under the iconic vehicle.
The shuttle was lowered onto an Intrepid-manned trailer at 5:30 a.m., marking the official transfer of Enterprise to from NASA to the Manhattan museum, its final home.
"We will be a little bit sad to walk away from Enterprise. I like to use the analogy of sending a child off to college," Stephanie Stilson, NASA flow director of orbiter transition and retirement, said. "Intrepid will do a great job taking care of it."
Enterprise was rolled back into the hangar at about 6 a.m. as the sun rose. It will sit there until June when it is placed on a barge that will carry it to the Intrepid. The shuttle will be on exhibit to the public beginning July 19.
The shuttle-jumbo jet separation was set for nighttime because winds were expected to be gentler then, Stilson said.
The operation required winds under than 10 mph and equipment involved a wind-restraint system, she said. Two hundred 4-inch holes were drilled into the ground to anchor masts and taglines supporting the sling and cranes, she said.
Enterprise was flown to New York from Washington, D.C., last month. It is part of NASA's fleet of retired space shuttles that are to have new homes at museums around the country. Enterprise was used to train astronauts but never flew in space.
Matt Woods, Intrepid vice president of facilities and operations, said the end of the shuttle program is sentimental Americans of all ages and New York is fortunate to have a piece of history.
"We're very excited," he said of taking ownership of Enterprise. "We're one step closer to having it on the deck of Intrepid."
Yvonne Williams, an operations planner with NASA contractor United Space Alliance, which is helping to relocate the retired shuttles, on Sunday enjoyed a snack of popcorn while she watched the demating.
"This is a special event," she said.