Endeavour swans California skies in whirlwind tour

By Alicia Chang

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 21 2012 5:05 p.m. MDT

the Space Shuttle Endeavour atop a modified 747 arrives at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, Sept. 21, 2012 in Los Angeles. Endeavour will be permanently displayed at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Times, Anne Cusack) NO FORNS; NO SALES; MAGS OUT; ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER OUT; LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS OUT; VENTURA COUNTY STAR OUT; INLAND VALLEY DAILY BULLETIN OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT, TV OUT, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The people became the paparazzi Friday, aiming their lenses not at the latest starlet, but toward the sky to catch a glimpse of an aging superstar headed for retirement.

It was the space shuttle Endeavour, zigzagging around California where it was born and where it will spend its golden years as a museum showpiece.

From the state Capitol to the Golden Gate Bridge to the Hollywood sign, thousands of spectators pointed their cellphones and cameras skyward as the shuttle, riding piggyback atop a 747 jumbo jet, buzzed past.

"It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was historic, momentous," said Daniel Pifko, who rode by motorcycle to a hilly peninsula north of San Francisco to snap a few pictures of the iconic bridge.

Across California, throngs swarmed rooftops for one last glimpse of Endeavour airborne. Parents pulled their kids out of school. Some became misty-eyed, while others chanted "USA! USA!" as the shuttle soared overhead.

Gina Oberholt screamed for joy when she spotted Endeavour from a scenic overlook in Los Angeles. She felt a bit nostalgic because her uncle had worked as a shuttle technician.

"I've always had a special place in my heart for the shuttle program," she said.

Known as the baby shuttle, Endeavour replaced Challenger, which exploded during liftoff in 1986. Endeavour rolled off the assembly line in the Mojave Desert in 1991 and a year later, rocketed to space. It left Earth 25 times, logging 123 million miles.

Friday's high-flying tour was a homecoming of sorts.

After a nearly five-hour loop that took Endeavour over some of the state's most treasured landmarks, it turned for its final approach, coasting down the runway on the south side of the Los Angeles International Airport, where elected officials and VIPS gathered for an arrival ceremony.

As the jumbo jet taxied to the hangar, an American flag popped out of the jet's hatch. Endeavour will stay at the airport for several weeks as crew prepare it for its final mission: a 12-mile trek through city streets to the California Science Center, its new permanent home, where it will go on display Oct. 30.

NASA retired the shuttle fleet last year to focus on destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Before Endeavour was grounded for good, Californians were treated to an aerial farewell.

Endeavour took off from the Mojave Desert Friday after an emotional cross-country ferry flight that made a special flyover of Tucson, Ariz., to honor its last commander, Mark Kelly, and his wife, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

It circled the high desert that gave birth to the shuttle fleet before veering to Northern California. After looping twice around the state Capitol, it swung over to the San Francisco Bay area and Silicon Valley and then headed down the coast, entering the Los Angeles air space over the Santa Monica Pier.

"Even though it was a few seconds, it was a unique experience to witness history," said Andrew Lerner, who gathered at the pier with his parents.

Derek Reynolds, a patent attorney from a Sacramento suburb, flew to Florida last year and camped out overnight on a bridge in the rain so he could view the last shuttle launch.

The flyover in Sacramento was a rare opportunity to share a firsthand experience of the space program with his 5-year-old son, Jack, who he pulled out of kindergarten for the day.

"I want him to experience it and give him the memory since it's the last one," Reynolds said.

Peggy Burke was among the hundreds of camera-toting tourists who jammed the waterfront along the San Francisco Bay, reflecting on the end of an era.

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