A rare look inside Endeavour as the shuttle is readied for museum

Posted at 9:44 PM, Mar 08, 2012
and last updated 2012-03-08 21:44:30-05

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- From the outside, you can't see much. The engines have been removed. The vehicle is encased in scaffolding. But it's still unmistakable.

In between the steel and ramps and stairs, you can make out the word "Endeavour" down the side. This space shuttle, which flew 122 million miles on 25 flights now sits in a building called the Orbiter Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center. Here, workers are preparing the orbiter for life after flying, life in a museum.

NASA on Wednesday gave members of the news media the opportunity to get up close, kick the tires. In fact, the tires were worn right down to the cords, nearly bald in spots. If Endeavour had been scheduled to fly again, they would have been replaced. Shuttles never flew with the same tires twice. One landing chewed them up.

From the outside, as you walk along platforms surrounding the vehicle, you can get a good look inside the cargo bay. It is absolutely enormous and pristine inside. The bay doors are open.

While it's overwhelming to stand under Endeavour, its belly plated with thousands of heat-shielding tiles, the real treat is yet to come. As they say, it's what's on the inside that counts.

We crawl and hands and knees into the mid-deck area. Here we catch up with Travis Thompson. When shuttles were flying, he was the close-out crew lead. During his career, Thompson made sure 100 shuttle crews got in and got ready to fly.

"This is their living quarters. We're in the mid-deck now. The flight deck is above us. The mid-deck is where they eat, sleep, potty," he tells me. On televisions during missions, it looks pretty spacious. It is, by spaceship standards, but it's not much bigger than some people's walk-in closets.

Thomson adds, "There's not as much equipment down here now. On launch day there would be lockers out to about 18 inches." He points from the wall.

From this mid-deck level, where on launch three astronauts would be seated, you can squeeze yourself through a port and out to the airlock that opens into the cargo bay. In their spacesuits, the astronauts would spend 12 hours in the airlock, pre-breathing oxygen for their spacewalk.

Our last stop is the flight deck. From the mid-deck we climb a ladder up. In front of us are the commander and pilot seats. Here, too, there's not much wiggle room. Above the seats and in front are banks of instruments, switches and buttons. The windows, made of three layers of glass, aren't much bigger than on an airplane.

What strikes you the most is just how small the living and flying areas are. But it makes sense. The shuttle was built to be an 18-wheeler with wings to haul up satellites and massive sections and trusses for construction of the international space station.

All that is over now, and after 30 years the shuttles are going into retirement.

Stephanie Stilson, who was responsible for getting shuttles ready to fly, is now responsible for getting them ready to for display. It's been tough, Stilson says.

"The thing we have been trying to focus on is how fortunate we are to continue to work with these vehicles until the very end," she says. "There are a lot of co-workers and friends that didn't get that opportunity, so there's a small group of us that have been very fortunate to be part of this. We're shuttle huggers. We're holding on until the very end."

John Zarrella-CNN