Boeing
This image shows OV-105 being rolled out after the build at the Rockwell Palmdale facility on April 25, 1991.
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updated 5/14/2011 1:19:09 PM ET 2011-05-14T17:19:09

When Al Hoffman was offered the opportunity to join the engineering team who was building the space shuttle Endeavour, he jumped at the opportunity to become part of what he considers one of the best programs in the world.

"I was doing space shuttle main engine tests at Rocketdyne and I got a phone call one day that said: how would you like to come to Palmdale [Calif.] and build a space shuttle?" Hoffman told SPACE.com. "I said, 'just tell me when and I'll be there in a heartbeat.' I thought it was the greatest opportunity in the world, and it was."

More than 20 years later, Endeavour is poised to launch on its final mission to the International Space Station. The shuttle is slated to lift off on Monday at 8:56 a.m. EDT (1256 GMT). [Video: Endeavour's Final Mission Goals]

Seeing Endeavour take to the skies for the final time will be a proud but bittersweet moment for Hoffman, who has been intimately involved with Endeavour since the beginning of its spaceflying career.

From the start
In the late 1980s, Hoffman became the director of assembly and test operations for the space shuttle program at Rockwell International, the company contracted by NASA to design and manufacture the orbiters. Rockwell was acquired by the Boeing Co. in 1996.  

Hoffman and his team were involved in everything from the installation of mechanical and electrical units to the interior and exterior thermal protection systems on the shuttles. Even though Endeavour, the youngest of NASA's fleet, was the first vehicle he worked on, Hoffman was quickly inducted into a close-knit group of shuttle workers who were tied together through triumph and tragedy. [Q&A with Endeavour's 1st Commander Dan Brandenstein]

"My second day with Rockwell was the day we lost Challenger," Hoffman said. "I saw how everybody was devastated, but at the time, I could not fully realize the impact of the devastation. Then, 17 years after the Challenger accident, early in the morning on the anniversary, I woke up thinking about it. I thought about the time I spent on the program since then. After spending all those years, I could absolutely relate."

For Hoffman, and so many of his colleagues, being a part of the space shuttle program was more than just a job: it was a distinction they were proud to be a part of, and the workers banded together like a family.

"It was honestly the best team I've ever been associated with," said Bill Lang, who was the director of quality during the construction of Endeavour. "I look back on it, and it was the best part of my career. It's an amazing sense of accomplishment." [Most Memorable Shuttle Missions]

Since Hoffman joined Rockwell just prior to Endeavour's construction, the baby of the fleet holds a special place in his heart.

"I do have an affinity for Endeavour, since it was my first vehicle," Hoffman said. "I remember standing in the hangar bay when STS-49 launched – its first mission back in 1992. We had a huge screen set up and we were all standing around watching the launch. I kind of welled up with tears. It was very emotional."

Learning from the others
As the newest of NASA's shuttles, the engineers who built Endeavour benefitted from the extensive knowledge they had gained from the legacies of Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis.

"It was just an easier build for us," Lang told SPACE.com. "We had so many lessons behind us that when it came to work on Endeavour, it was a faster process."

Endeavour also benefitted from its siblings in more than just a conceptual sense. The orbiter was built using structural spare parts from the construction of Discovery and Atlantis. [Space Shuttle Endeavour Construction Photos]

"When Challenger was lost, and we were authorized to go ahead and build another orbiter, those pieces already existed," said Dwight Woolhouse, who began working in the shuttle program in 1972, and worked closely with Lang in quality assurance during the construction of Endeavour. "These structural spares saved us probably two years in the manufacture of the orbiter."

But despite being the last one in the production line, there are very few differences between Endeavour and the rest of the fleet, Hoffman said. Other than the obligatory design and hardware upgrades, the shuttles were intended to be mostly uniform to facilitate the astronaut training process.

Still, there are some very subtle characteristics that set Endeavour apart from the rest.

"They were similar, but they were all unique in their own ways," Hoffman said. "For anyone who follows orbiters closely, I think the most striking thing that you would see on Endeavour happened to be the drag chute — it made the tail end, the vertical area, look a little different there. We were also upgrading the thermal protection systems, so when we built Endeavour, and as the fleet progressed, we were able to eliminate a lot of tiles on the upper portion."

Building the shuttle
Endeavour was the first shuttle equipped with a 40-foot-diameter drag chute that reduced the orbiter's rollout distance by 1,000 to 2,000 feet during landing. The shuttle also featured improved computers and power systems.

During Endeavour's construction phase, Hoffman recalled a particularly memorable moment when Mother Nature unexpectedly played a part in properly aligning a critical part of the orbiter.

"We were putting the crew module inside the vehicle one day," Hoffman said. "The crew module goes in the lower forward fuselage assembly, and then it kind of gets capped into place with the upper forward canopy. We had it suspended and were getting ready to lower it in but we had a slight alignment problem on some bolts. We had made a few attempts. Well, we had a small earthquake, and that actually made it fit."

Hoffman is still involved in the field of aerospace, and is currently Boeing's site manager for Edwards Air Force Base in California and NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. To this day, he marvels at the engineering complexity of the shuttles, and jokes that he is more than eager to talk about the program to anyone who will listen.

"It's still the most complex machine ever built," Hoffman said. "There are well over 2 million parts, over 230 miles of wiring 22,000 to 24,000 tiles — it's just incredible. The legacy will live on, we just need to make sure that NASA and other educators help people realize what a significant part of history the shuttle program was."

Looking to the past and the future
With the space shuttle program drawing to a close later this year, Lang reflected on his profound sense of pride, knowing he was part of a program that is an iconic part of the nation's space program.

"When you travel and people ask you what you do, you puff out your chest and say you work on the space shuttles. It's absolutely defining," he said. "It's a little bittersweet to see something like the orbiter flying for the last time, but regardless, it's been an incredibly successful and incredibly amazing program."

Woolhouse also spoke about his strong sense of pride and recounted the numerous achievements from the space shuttle program.

"I'm very proud to have been part of the shuttle team," Woolhouse said. "I think it's the best accomplishment anyone who has lived in my period of time can say. There are a lot of bad things that have happened on the Earth over the last 40 to 50 years, but some of the high points have been the space shuttles and the International Space Station."

He recalled one particularly unforgettable day in his career when he was asked to fly from California to Florida overnight to assist with one of the orbiters being processed at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

"I flew the red-eye flight, and the next morning drove to KSC," Woolhouse said. "I worked all day long and at the end of my assigned work period, I went down to the beach to watch another shuttle launch from the pad at night. So, I started on the West Coast, spent the night flying to the East Coast, spent the next day working on the vehicles that I love, and then at the end of the day, I got to see one of them launch into orbit. I'll never forget that. I always thought that was the most perfect day I ever spent."

You can follow SPACE.com Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Visit SPACE.com for complete coverage of Endeavour's final mission STS-134 or follow us @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: The life of space shuttle Endeavour

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  1. Special delivery

    Endeavour was the last space shuttle to join NASA's fleet: It was built to replace the shuttle Challenger, which was lost in an explosion shortly after launch in 1986. This view shows Endeavour perched atop a modified Boeing 747 on May 2, 1991, beginning the ferry flight from Palmdale, Calif. - where the shuttle was built - to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First liftoff

    Endeavour lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 7, 1992, beginning its first mission. The STS-49 mission's primary task was the repair of the Intelsat VI telecommunications satellite. Endeavour was the only shuttle to make its maiden flight from Pad 39B. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grab that satellite!

    Endeavour astronauts Richard Hieb, Thomas Akers and Pierre Thuot hold onto the 4.5-ton Intelsat VI satellite after making a six-handed "capture" on May 13, 1992. The satellite failed to rise above low Earth orbit when it was launched in 1990. During Endeavour's maiden mission, astronauts retrieved the satellite, attached it to a new upper-stage booster and relaunched it to its intended geosynchronous orbit. This mission marked the first time that three people from the same spacecraft walked in space at the same time. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Science in space

    Endeavour astronauts Jan Davis, left, and Mae Jemison prepare to deploy the lower body negative pressure apparatus on Sept. 15, 1992. Scientific research was the main focus of this Spacelab-J mission, also known as STS-47. The mission's crew included the first African-American woman to fly in space (Mae Jemison) and the only husband-and-wife team to go into space together (Jan Davis and Mark Lee). (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fixing Hubble

    Astronauts flew on Endeavour to take on the first Hubble servicing mission in December 1993. In this picture, spacewalkers Story Musgrave and Jeffrey Hoffman perform an orbital ballet. The coastline of western Australia is visible below. The complex and highly successful repair mission allowed Hubble, which was launched with a defective mirror, to see into the universe with unprecedented clarity. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Building the station

    Endeavour spacewalker Jim Newman holds onto the International Space Station's Unity connecting module as he removes covers and works on connecting cables on Dec. 7, 1998. The STS-88 flight marked the shuttle fleet's first space station assembly mission. (AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Erroneous endeavor

    The shuttle Endeavour sits on its launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 11, 2007. "Endeavor" is spelled incorrectly on the banner. The shuttle was named after the HMS Endeavour, the British sailing ship that carried Captain James Cook on his first voyage of discovery from 1768 to 1771. That's why Endeavour reflects the British spelling of the word. (Eliot J. Schechter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Spacewalkers at work

    During the first spacewalk of the STS-118 mission, on Aug. 11, 2007, astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Canada's Dave Williams (out of frame) attach a new segment of the International Space Station's truss and retract a collapsible radiator. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Class portrait

    The crew members of Endeavour's STS-118 crew pose for their official portrait on Aug. 8, 2007. From left are Rick Mastracchio, Barbara Morgan, pilot Charles Hobaugh, mission commander Scott Kelly, Tracy Caldwell, Canadian astronaut Dave Williams and Alvin Drew. During this flight, Morgan became the first educator astronaut to go into orbit. In 1986, she was the backup for Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who died in the Challenger explosion. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Great view

    Endeavour spacewalker Rick Mastracchio relocates communications equipment on the International Space Station during an outing on Aug. 15, 2007. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A gouge in the tiles

    Tiles on the underside of the space shuttle Endeavour show evidence of damage in a photo taken on Aug. 12, 2007, using the shuttle's robotic arm and a camera-tipped extension boom. The close-up imagery helped mission managers determine that the gouge would pose no threat during Endeavour's atmospheric re-entry. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Eye of the hurricane

    Crew members aboard the shuttle Endeavour captured this picture of Hurricane Dean's eye in the Caribbean on Aug. 18, 2007. The STS-118 mission ended on Aug. 21, one day earlier than planned, to avoid potential complications due to the storm. Forecasters worried that Hurricane Dean could have swept over Houston around the time of landing - but in the end, the storm took a different course. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. In control

    NASA Administrator Michael Griffin watches the liftoff of the space shuttle Endeavour from the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 14, 2008. The STS-126 mission delivered two spare bedrooms as well as a second kitchen and bathroom to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Repairs at the pad

    Workers perform repairs on the shuttle Endeavour's external fuel tank at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad on June 14, 2009. The launch team detected a leak of hydrogen fuel from the tank, forcing a delay in Endeavour's STS-127 launch. The mission's main task was the delivery of the final segment of Japan's Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station. (Tim Jacobs / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lightning strikes

    A giant bolt of lightning hits Endeavour's Florida launch pad on July 10, 2009. Technical problems and severe weather forced five delays in Endeavour's STS-127 launch. (Gene Blevins / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Liftoff at last!

    The space shuttle Endeavour rises from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on July 15, 2009, on the STS-127 mission's sixth launch attempt. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Parting glance

    The space shuttle Endeavour is photographed from the International Space Station soon after its departure on July 28, 2009. A Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station is visible in the foreground. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Twilight of the shuttle

    The shuttle Endeavour is silhouetted against different layers of the sunlit atmosphere during its approach to the International Space Station on Feb. 9, 2010. The primary payloads for Endeavour's STS-130 mission were the Tranquility module and the Cupola observation deck and control station. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Check out this view!

    Astronaut George Zamka, Endeavour's commander for the STS-130 mission, peeks out a window of the International Space Station's newly installed Cupola observation deck on Feb. 19, 2010. The Cupola provides an unparalleled view of Earth below. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Tanks for the memories

    The external fuel tank for Endeavour's final mission, STS-134, is transported to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 14, 2010. STS-134's main payload is the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an international physics experiment. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The view from above

    The space shuttle Endeavour is lowered into place for attachment to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 1, 2011. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Greeting the day

    The sun rises as photographers gather on a hill to take pictures shortly after the shuttle Endeavour's arrival at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on March 11, 2011. (Roberto Gonzalez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Into the clouds

    Photographers track the space shuttle Endeavour's ascent as it pierces the clouds and disappears after launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16. (Craig Rubadoux / Daytona Beach News-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Godspeed, Endeavour!

    Spectators react as the space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16. Hundreds of thousands of people watched the start of the next-to-last space shuttle flight. (Scott Audette / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Above the clouds

    Stefanie Gordon captured this remarkable picture of the space shuttle Endeavour rising above Florida's cloud cover on May 16 while she was on a commercial flight from New York to Palm Beach, Fla. (Stefanie Gordon / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The last spacewalk

    NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff holds a handrail during the fourth and last spacewalk conducted by the shuttle Endeavour's crew at the International Space Station on May 27. Chamitoff and astronaut Michael Fincke (visible in the reflections from Chamitoff's helmet visor) transferred an inspection boom system, completing U.S. assembly of the station. The May 27 outing marked the last scheduled spacewalk to be conducted by a space shuttle crew. (Nasa T.V. via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Night passage

    Backdropped by a nighttime view of Earth and the starry sky, the space shuttle Endeavour is seen docked to the International Space Station on May 28. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Landing in the dark

    The space shuttle Endeavour lands for the last time at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 1, 2011. The touchdown capped Endeavour's 16-day mission to deliver a $2 billion science experiment to the International Space Station on NASA's next-to-last shuttle flight. (Joe Skipper / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Blastoff into history

    A NASA poster pays tribute to Endeavour and its space missions over the past two decades. The shuttle is shown rising to orbit, with patches for each of its missions laid out in a spiral. The HMS Endeavour, which inspired the spaceship's name, is shown at lower right. At upper left, pictures of Endeavour are framed in the windows of the Cupola. The background image depicts the nebula NGC 602 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, which was first serviced by Endeavour in 1993. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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