CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - Twenty-five times Endeavour blasted into orbit and survived the searing heat of re-entry, along the way rescuing, repairing and deploying satellites and helping to build and supply the International Space Station.
Monday begins "Mission 26," which will see the retired orbiter embark on the final shuttle ferry flight across the country, then navigate dense urban streets to reach its new home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Hundreds of trees, power and communication lines, traffic lights and utility poles are being cut down, raised or temporarily removed to clear a 12-mile path for Endeavour through downtown L.A. and Inglewood.
The spaceship's unprecedented tour through congested city corridors has required planning and coordination nearly as complex as a shuttle mission's. "It's not exactly launching the shuttle into orbit, but it's a challenging program," said Marty Fabrick of the California Science Center Foundation, who is directing Endeavour's delivery to the museum.
On Saturday, Kennedy Space Center crews will finish bolting the 155,000-pound orbiter to the back of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a modified Boeing 747. The joined jumbo jet and spaceship are expected to take off from the space center at sunrise Monday, weather permitting . "It's the youngest of our fleet," Stephanie Stilson, the NASA manager overseeing the shuttles' preparations for museum display, said of Endeavour. "It's our baby, and so we're letting go of our baby and turning her over to California."
Endeavour's future display site is not far from the place where shuttle orbiters were built, in a Palmdale, Calif., plant roughly 60 miles north of L.A. Endeavour arrived at Kennedy on May 7, 1991. Over four days, the ferry flight will fly over or stop at the NASA centers and facilities that had the biggest roles supporting the shuttle program, giving them an opportunity to say goodbye. First stop: Ellington Field near Johnson Space Center in Houston.
After detouring as far north as San Francisco, Endeavour is expected to arrive at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday. It will be loaded onto the "overland transporter" frame that orbiters rode from Palmdale to Edwards Air Force Base for ferry flights to Florida.
The two-day urban adventure begins early Oct. 12. After crossing LAX runways, Endeavour will duck under high-voltage power lines and cross above Interstate 405 on its way to a stop at Inglewood City Hall. "There was really no existing playbook for moving a spaceship through 12 miles of densely populated urban streets, so we had to develop the playbook and learn a lot as we went," Fabrick said of the project's biggest challenge.
Officials say the chosen route was the only one of many considered that provided the clearances for Endeavour's 78-foot wingspan and 58-foot tail height -- too tall for highway overpasses. Crews are in the process of cutting down more than 400 trees along the route, generating some grumbling from residents, according to news reports.
The science center has promised to plant two trees for each one removed, and says the two cities appreciate the chance to replace many non-native or dangerous trees with ones that better fit their master plans. Continuing Oct. 13, Endeavour's ride will take it through a mix of commercial and residential streets in culturally diverse neighborhoods, past large venues like the Forum, Hollywood Park racetrack and L.A. Coliseum.
Long stretches of the route where wingspan clearance is too tight -- sometimes within inches of a tree or utility pole -- will be closed to spectators. There's a section where the Los Angeles Police Department regularly patrols gang activity, said Lt. Andrew Neiman, though he expects no trouble.
Neiman compared the extensive security preparations for Endeavour's journey to a cross between planning for the annual Academy Awards and for the 1987 visit by Pope John Paul II. "We have a tremendous number of resources that are being allocated to this to ensure the safe travel of the shuttle," he said.
The Endeavour exhibit will open to the public Oct. 30 inside a recently constructed pavilion at the science center. At the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center slated to open in 2017, Endeavour will be featured in a vertical position as if on a launch pad.
The cost to acquire Endeavour from NASA, ship it west and build the display facilities is all part of a $200 million fun-raising campaign.
By JAMES DEAN Florida Today