LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The space shuttle Endeavour touched down in Los Angeles on Friday on the back of a jumbo jet, greeted by cheering crowds as it ended a celebratory final flight en route to its retirement home at a Southern California science museum.
The 75-ton winged spaceship, ferried by a modified Boeing 747, landed at Los Angeles International Airport shortly before 1:00 p.m. after hop-scotching across the country from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and flying a victory lap over California.
Hundreds of office workers stood atop downtown skyscrapers, cheering as the shuttle banked low around the city as it arrived from its last stopover at Edwards Air Force Base, about 100 miles north of the city in the Mojave desert.
“Let me be the first to say, welcome to Los Angeles, Endeavour,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said during a ceremony on the tarmac.
The shuttle’s arrival brought two major freeways leading to the Los Angeles airport to a standstill as drivers got out of their cars to watch the spacecraft make its final approach.
Tens of thousands more spectators, armed with photo and video cameras, had jammed into Griffith Park and Observatory and the surrounding area to catch a glimpse of Endeavour as it soared over the landmark Hollywood sign.
“It’s the end of an era,” said John Norman, 45, a technical manager from Los Angeles, who visited Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see Endeavour’s final launch. “It’s just one of those boyhood dreams.”
Applause and cheers rolled through the hills when the orbiter and its escort roared past three times, each pass closer than the one before.
In San Francisco, people crowded the city’s waterfront to catch a glimpse of the shuttle as it flew over the bay.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia,” said Anthony Falzone, a 40-year-old lawyer. “When I was a kid, Apollo was long gone, and this was the space program, this was my experience with manned spaceflight.”
Endeavour’s flight from Edwards to Los Angeles marked the shuttle’s last ferry flight and the final airborne journey for any of NASA’s three surviving shuttles.
NASA retired Endeavour and the rest of its shuttle fleet last year after completing the U.S. portion of the $100 billion International Space Station, a permanently staffed research complex orbiting 250 miles above Earth.
The arrival at Edwards was a homecoming of sorts for the California-made shuttle, built as a replacement for Challenger, which was lost in a 1986 accident that killed seven astronauts.
Endeavour went on to fly 25 missions, including 12 to help build and outfit the space station, and logged nearly 123 million miles (198 million km) in flight during 4,671 orbits.
“(Endeavour) was my first ride to space and it was in 2008. It was very special being a rookie with her and I look forward to seeing her when she’s finally settled into her new home,” former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman said.
“Though I do have a bone to pick with her. She had a few malfunctions and the alarms went off twice. But at the end of the day I‘m here, she kept me safe. I forgive her,” he said.
Endeavour is the second of NASA’s three surviving shuttles to be sent to a museum. The oldest one surviving, Discovery, is on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center outside Washington.
Endeavour will next undergo preparations to be moved through city streets to the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles, where it will be put on display starting October 30.
To make way for the mammoth orbiter along its 12-mile (19-km) route, crews are cutting down nearly 400 trees, raising overhead utility wires and temporarily removing hundreds of utility poles, street lights and traffic signals. The center has agreed to plant 1,000 new trees to replace those scheduled for removal.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Weber in San Francisco and Alex Dobuzinskis, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh