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Shuttle inches toward retirement at L.A. museum

Published October 13, 2012 11:56 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

LOS ANGELES • At every turn of Endeavour's stop-and-go commute through urban streets, a constellation of spectators trailed along as the space shuttle ploddingly nosed past stores, schools, churches and front yards.

Having escaped out of Earth's atmosphere two dozen times, Endeavour's slow-speed trek Saturday to its retirement center took it through the working class streets of southern Los Angeles.

In an instant, the shuttle crossings became part of history.

Along the 12-mile course, people marveled at the engineering. Some rooted for Endeavour when it appeared it might clip a light post. Others wondered if it could just hurry up to its destination.

Crowds gathered in front of lnglewood High School before sunrise Saturday to watch Endeavour roll by at about 2 mph. Many were bundled up sipping coffee. By late afternoon, some 30,000 people were gathered along the final stretch of the journey, according to fire department estimates.

Dean Martinez, who lives in Los Angeles but works in Inglewood, came with his wife and 9-year-old daughter.

"This is great for the city as a whole. It makes us proud," said Martinez, a project director for a nonprofit whose family took turns taking pictures of one another as the shuttle slowly inched by.

Added his wife, Marcia: "It's a big deal especially for this neighborhood. It's important to witness history and for our children to experience it."

Endeavour was scheduled to inch into the California Science Center late Saturday to spend the rest of its years as a museum piece.

Unlike other high-profile events like the Academy Awards or the Rose Parade, the procession was centered in some of the area's most economically downtrodden and troubled places. The shuttle passed several gritty areas and shuttered businesses, and rolled down many streets that were aflame two decades earlier during the 1992 riots brought on by the Rodney King beating.

"Having a shuttle come through this area of high poverty, it can only be a good thing" for the community," said Damian Pipkins, a volunteer at Eso Won Books.

But it was also a day of hurdles and hiccups that by late afternoon had Endeavour running some two hours behind. There was no major single reason for the slowdown — it was the accumulation of many small problems involving maneuvering and maintenance.

They included a small tree that planners hadn't thought needed removal but ended up bringing the procession to a stop. As crews tried to find ways to tilt and twist the shuttle past the tree, they came close to deciding to cut it down before it squeezed through.

Another slip-up came when it appeared the shuttle was going to hit a light post, and crews again began plans to remove it as the ship slid through.

The crowd had its problems too. Despite temperatures in the mid-70s, some 26 people were treated for heat-related injuries after a long day in the sun, a fire department statement said.

But incredibly, given the size of the crowd, police reported no arrests.

The shuttle made a late-morning pit stop at the Forum, where it was greeted in the arena's parking lot by a throng of cheering spectators. After crawling up Crenshaw Boulevard, the shuttle was scheduled to stop for a bit at the intersection with Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. A celebration was planned, including speeches by politicians and a dance performance choreographed by Debbie Allen.

Endeavour hit the pavement before dawn Friday, trundling out of the Los Angeles International Airport on a remote-controlled 160-wheel carrier past diamond-shaped "Shuttle Xing" signs.

The pace picked up Friday night when the five-story-tall shuttle was towed over a freeway overpass by a truck (The mated shuttle and carrier were too heavy for that section.) Next to the freeway, Randy's Donuts roadside sign, featured in movies such as "Iron Man 2," landed another cameo as a shuttle backdrop.

There were bumps in the road. Several hundred Inglewood residents suffered hours-long outages when power lines were temporarily snipped. Some businesses lost customers because of street and sidewalk closures.

For most of the way, Endeavour straddled wide boulevards — Manchester, Crenshaw, Martin Luther King Jr. The one exception was when the shuttle poked through a slightly curved residential street lined with apartment buildings on both sides. It was such a squeeze that its 78-foot wingspan towered over driveways.

John Wilkes, 69, a longtime Inglewood resident, woke up five hours earlier than usual to stake out a spot.

"This is definitely a treat," said Wilkes, who is retired from the airline industry. "But what would be a better treat is to be able to take a ride on the shuttle."

As it wound through South Los Angeles, residents welcomed its presence. Before the move, some lamented over the loss of shade as trees were chopped down to provide clearance.

Others thought it was a decent trade.

"If you have to go through a little bit of pain to have something nice for the community, then it's worth it," said Pamela Tucker, who lives a block away from Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles.

When Endeavour rolls down King Boulevard, special attention will be paid to the pine trees planted in honor of the slain civil rights leader.

Endeavour may have circled the globe nearly 4,700 times, but its roots are grounded in California. Its main engines were fabricated in the San Fernando Valley. The heat tiles were invented in Silicon Valley. Its "fly-by-wire" technology was developed in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey.

It's no longer shiny and sleek like when it first rolled off the assembly line in the Mojave Desert in 1991 to replace the lost Challenger. As it cruised block-by-block, it's hard to miss what 123 million miles in space and two dozen re-entries can do to the exterior.

Shuffling Endeavour through city streets was a laborious undertaking — nearly a year in the making. It could not be taken apart without damaging the delicate tiles. Airlifting it was out of the question. So was driving on freeways since it was too massive to fit through underpasses.

"This is unlike anything we've ever moved before," said Jim Hennessy, a spokesman for Sarens, the contract mover.

Such a move is not cheap. The cross-town transport was estimated at $10 million, to be paid for by the science center and private donations.

Endeavour's transport followed other shuttle moves. Earlier this year, Discovery taxied to the Smithsonian's annex hangar in Virginia. The prototype Enterprise was pulled by barge to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City.

Next month, Atlantis, which remained at its Cape Canaveral, Fla., home base, will be towed short distance to the Kennedy Space Center visitor's lobby.