LOS ANGELES -
After traveling nearly 123 million miles, the space shuttle Endeavour spent its last moments in the air Friday as it took a majestic aerial tour of the Southland, drawing cheers from thousands of residents as it passed overhead before landing at Los Angeles International Airport -- a stopover on its road to retirement.
Mounted atop a modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, the shuttle took a circuitous tour, flying over Malibu to the Santa Monica Pier then to downtown Los Angeles and the California Science Center in Exposition Park, where it will ultimately be put on display as a permanent exhibit.
The piggy-backed aircraft circled over the Hollywood Sign, Griffith Observatory, Getty Center, the Rose Bowl and Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena before flying south to Disneyland and back to Long Beach and Downey. At each site, throngs of people cheered and furiously shot photos with cameras and cellphones.
The shuttle departed Edwards Air Force Base, near the border of Los Angeles and Kern counties, at 8:17 a.m. It made flyovers of Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area before circling toward the Southland. The departure was delayed an hour in the hope that San Francisco's famous fog will dissipate enough to allow clear viewing for Northern Californians.
As Endeavour headed south, it passed over NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffatt Field north of San Jose and Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County.
The flight culminated at LAX at 12:52 p.m. with a landing punctuated by a member of the crew aboard the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft opening a door on top of the plane and holding an American flag that fluttered in the wind as the aircraft taxied.
The shuttle will remain at a United Airlines hangar until Oct. 12, when it will begin a two-day, 12-mile journey on city streets to the California Science Center at Exposition Park. It will go on permanent display at the museum beginning Oct. 30.
Despite concerns about troubles on Southland roadways during the shuttle's aerial tour -- from motorists looking at the sky instead of the road -- Los Angeles police said none of those problems materialized. The Los Angeles Fire Department sent paramedics around noon to Griffith Park on reports of a few "heat-related medical complaints," according to spokesman Erik Scott.
The shuttle's cross-country journey began just after dawn Wednesday when it took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It stopped overnight at Ellington Field near Johnson Space Center in Houston.
En route to Edwards -- it touched down at 12:52 p.m. Thursday -- the orbiter made a flyover of Tucson, Ariz., to honor former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whose husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, commanded Endeavour on its final mission last year. Giffords was seriously wounded in a shooting at a Tucson campaign appearance in 2011.
Endeavour's overland route from LAX to the science center requires the removal of hundreds of trees and the reconfiguring of power lines and other obstacles. The California Science Center Foundation has agreed to replant around four times as many trees than will be removed in some neighborhoods along the route.
"Before the Endeavour lands at its final destination, there's one more leg on its amazing journey," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. "... In less than a month, we'll have a chance to see a site as impressive as today's flyover -- the Endeavour traveling through our streets and hundreds of thousands of people cheer it on."
At the Science Center, Endeavour will be housed at the new Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center. Science Center officials are still raising funds for the $200 million project, but the effort was bolstered by a hefty donation in May by the foundation of the late businessman and philanthropist Samuel Oschin, who died in 2003. The exact amount of the donation was not released.
Oschin's wife, Lynda, said today a photo of her husband was aboard Endeavour as it traveled to the Southland.
"This is my husband's dream, his vision and his passion, everything he loved and believed in, rolled into one," she said, standing in front of the shuttle. "Education, inspiration, science, children, math, astronomy, engineering, commitment. One day, a child will walk in to the new 20-story Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center. That child will look up in sheer, utter amazement when he sees the Endeavour in the launch position, and that child will be so inspired to lead the way for the future of the United States and for the future of our world."
Endeavour, which was built largely in Palmdale and whose construction was completed in 1991, was NASA's fifth and final orbiter and was created as a replacement for the destroyed Challenger. Its first mission was in May 1992 and its last was in May 2011.
In all, Endeavour logged 25 missions and traveled nearly 123 million miles, spending 299 days in orbit and circling the planet 4,671 times.
Of the other surviving orbiters, the shuttle Discovery is on display in Chantilly, Va., at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, part of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The shuttle Atlantis will be exhibited beginning next summer at the Kennedy Space Center.
The shuttle Enterprise, the first orbiter built, served as a test vehicle and was not outfitted for space flight. It is on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York.
The shuttle Challenger was destroyed in an explosion that killed its crew of seven shortly after takeoff in 1986 and Columbia disintegrated on reentry at the end of a mission in 2003, killing all seven aboard.
The last shuttle flight was in July 2011. When Atlantis completed the mission, its return ended the 30-year shuttle program and, for now, U.S-launched manned space flights.
Copyright 2012 by City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.