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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The retired space shuttle Endeavour set off on Friday for a trip unlike any of its previous journeys, one in which it will crawl through the streets of Los Angeles instead of hurtling through space.
Endeavour nosed out of Los Angeles International Airport before dawn as it began a two-day journey at 2 miles per hour (3.2 km per hour) atop a massive wheeled transporter to its retirement home at the California Science Center on the edge of downtown.
The shuttle flew from 1992 to 2011 and will go on public display after arriving at its destination. It was largely built in southern California and was a workhorse of the U.S. space program, flying on 25 missions.
It left the airport shortly after 2 a.m. (0900 GMT) and reached its first scheduled stop just before 6 a.m. (1300 GMT) - a strip mall parking lot where a few hundred spectators gawked at it.
The stop was to give crews time to shut down power lines along the shuttle's path and raise them to make room for the vehicle, said Los Angeles police spokesman Sergeant Rudy Lopez.
"I grew up in central Florida and saw many shuttle launches, but this is the first time I've ever been up close to one," said bystander Stephen Caldwell, 38.
"This really is a big part of American history and to be able to see it here is really special," he said.
Caldwell, who works in airport design and construction and was visiting Los Angeles on business, said he did not know Endeavour was moving through the streets until he looked out his hotel window.
Ten-year-old Sasha Benson, a local resident, also was taking it all in. "It's cool that it's been up in space," she said.
Workers have felled 400 curbside trees along Endeavour's 12-mile (19-km) route to clear its way. The science center will plant more than 1,000 trees to make up for their removal.
Street lights, traffic signals, power poles and parking meters along the path are being temporarily removed.
Crews have already laid down more than 2,000 steel plates at sensitive points to shield the road and underground utilities from the crushing weight of the shuttle and its transporter.
The project to move Endeavour will cost over $10 million, said Shell Amega, a spokeswoman for the science center.
The center beat out a number of other institutions when the U.S. space agency NASA chose it as the permanent home for the nearly 80-ton winged spaceship.
It was taken out of service because of the end of the NASA shuttle program that began with a launch in 1981.
Endeavour hop-scotched across the country from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the back of a modified Boeing 747. It was parked at the airport after arriving on September 21 following a ceremonial piggyback flight around California during which spectators on the ground cheered and wept.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry said on Thursday that when Endeavour flew over the city last month, she and her colleagues ran up to the roof of City Hall where they watched it with tears in their eyes.
Perry said she remained apprehensive about the road journey, when she said Endeavour will pass through intersections with as little as six inches of clearance. She also anticipates large crowds along the way.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the space shuttle come down your neighborhood street," Perry said. "How often does that happen?"
Los Angeles police were closing streets along the planned route for what organizers are calling "Mission 26," in reference to the shuttle's 25 previous missions into space.
Once it arrives at the center, it will be displayed in a temporary, hangar-style metal structure to protect it from the elements. In 2017 a special pavilion will open in which Endeavour will stand vertically, said Ken Phillips, aerospace curator at the center.
The other remaining spaceships from the shuttle program have also found homes.
The Smithsonian in Washington has Discovery at its Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center museum in Virginia. New York City has the prototype shuttle Enterprise at its Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. And the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral in Florida has Atlantis, which the center will move to an on-site visitor complex next month.
Reporting by Jason Redmond and Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Eric Walsh and Xavier Briand