Space shuttle Endeavour takes to California skies

by William M. Welch, USA TODAY

SACRAMENTO -- After celebratory low passes over Tucson, Houston and other points to the east, NASA's retired space shuttle Endeavour arrived on its final flight here today, swooping over the state Capitol as part of an aerial tour.

Thousands watched Friday from nearby rooftop buildings and along a bridge as the shuttle, strapped to the back of a modified jumbo jet, circled the city. Crowds also lined dozens of piers in San Francisco to get a glimpse of the shuttle.

State and local law enforcement officers are bracing for the effects on freeways as Endeavour makes low-pass salutes across Southern California, perhaps distracting the eyes of motorists, before landing at Los Angeles International Airport.

Endeavour, the newest spacecraft in the mothballed space shuttle fleet, is destined for a final home as an exhibit at the California Science Center.There it will be a reminder not only of the nation's space program but also of the prominent role aerospace forged in driving development of Southern California in the latter half of the 20th century.

Much of the space shuttle was built in the region, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa notes, and while it is an industry in decline now, aerospace provided livelihoods for thousands of engineers and other workers for decades in Los Angeles.

"Endeavour will quickly become a must-see attraction in Los Angeles," Villaraigosa says. "More importantly, it will motivate our young people to dream about the possibilities of a world beyond our own. Endeavour is an impressive testament to the history and heritage of space exploration and aerospace innovation in our region."

The shuttle arrived in California at midday Thursday, riding in its perch atop a specially configured Boeing 747 transport plane. It landed shortly after noon at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert 100 miles north of the city, where it was spending the night before its final flight Friday.

The shuttle departed Florida on Wednesday, overnighted at Houston, home to many NASA workers, and on Thursday headed west over Tucson, in a salute to the commander of its last space mission, Mark Kelly, and his wife, former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely injured in a January 2011 shooting.

The shuttle was to make low passes, at an altitude of 1,500 feet, at landmarks across California -- from the San Francisco Bay and state capital in Sacramento in the north to Disneyland in Anaheim south of Los Angeles. Crowds are expected to glimpse it as it passes over NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and aerospace contractors along the coast as well as at tourist sites including Universal Studios and Venice Beach.

City and state officials have urged the public not to try to watch the flyover from their vehicles, fearing even more traffic congestion and accidents.

Friday, California Highway Patrol Officer Miguel Luevano says, is normally a heavy traffic day. "We don't want anybody stopping on the shoulder, because we will cite them," Luevano says.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event. ... If people really want to see it, we suggest they exit the freeway."

Once the shuttle lands, it will wait at the airport by the Pacific Coast until its cross-town trip early next month.Getting to its final resting spot will require a 15-mile trek on a wheeled transport across Los Angeles streets, requiring the removal of nearly 500 trees and scores of light poles, sign posts and other obstacles.

Endeavour is quite a wide load, with a 78-foot wingspan and a tail height of 58 feet.The ground journey will take it across across Inglewood, a city adjacent to Los Angeles and its airport, then north on Crenshaw Avenue through South Los Angeles, and then east toward the center at Exposition Park, according to the route disclosed by the California Science Center.The science center has agreed to replant about twice as many trees as it removes and donate more than $1 million for neighborhood improvements in the affected areas.

"Over the past three decades, Endeavour has blasted off from Earth and visited space 25 times," Villaraigosa says. "The shuttle's arrival in Los Angeles marks Mission 26: The Final Endeavour. It is the mission that brings the shuttle back home to stay."


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