Alicia Chang and Paul Davenport
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES – Space shuttle Endeavour returned to its California roots Thursday after a wistful cross-country journey that paid homage to NASA workers and former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband.
“That’s my spaceship,” said Endeavour’s last commander, Mark Kelly, as the couple watched the shuttle loop over Tucson, Ariz.
Afterward, a 747 jet carrying Endeavour swooped out of the desert sky and glided down a concrete runway at Edwards Air Force Base, 100 miles north of Los Angeles, not far from where the now-retired shuttle fleet was assembled.
The shuttle and jumbo jet take off again at sunrise Friday to make low, sweeping passes over Sacramento, San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles.
Next stop: Los Angeles International Airport where Endeavour will be prepped for a slow ride on a special flatbed trailer through city streets next month to its final destination as a museum showpiece.
Endeavour’s highly anticipated homecoming was twice delayed by stormy weather along the Gulf of Mexico. Early Wednesday, it departed from its Cape Canaveral, Fla., home base, soared over NASA centers in Mississippi and Louisiana, and made a layover in Houston, home of Mission Control. Crowds craned their necks skyward as the shuttle flew low over Florida’s Space Coast and Houston.
After refueling in El Paso, Texas, Thursday, it flew over the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, an emergency shuttle landing site used once. Kelly requested that Endeavour sail over Tucson to honor Giffords, who is recovering after suffering a head wound in a shooting rampage last year. Giffords was a member of the House committee on science, space and technology. The couple watched from the roof of a University of Arizona parking garage.
Former Giffords aide C.J. Karamargin said Giffords was “elated” and started “hooting and hollering” as soon as she spotted Endeavour.
Kelly said the flyover reminded him of how challenging it was to land the shuttle, because it doesn’t use its engines as it returns to Earth. “It doesn’t glide very well,” Kelly said.
Endeavour’s maiden voyage into space two decades ago ended with a planned touchdown at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center based at Edwards. Unlike a return from orbit, no ear-splitting twin sonic booms accompanied the latest return.
Known as the baby shuttle, Endeavour was the last one built, replacing Challenger, which exploded during liftoff in 1986. NASA lost a second shuttle, Columbia, which broke apart during re-entry in 2003. A replacement was not built. Fourteen astronauts died in the accidents.
Six years after the Challenger tragedy, during Endeavour’s first flight, three spacewalking astronauts made a daring rescue of a stranded communications satellite. A year later, it was launched on a service repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
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