The space shuttle Endeavour honored wounded ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords before landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Thursday at the tail end of a cross-country trip to Los Angeles to begin its final mission as a museum exhibit.
The specially modified Boeing 747 with the newly retired spaceship perched on its back touched down safely at 12:50 p.m. local time (3:50 p.m. EDT) at Edwards, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert.
NASA retired its shuttle fleet last year after completing the U.S. portion of the $100 billion International Space Station, a permanently staffed research complex that is owned by 15 nations and orbits about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.
Endeavour embarked on its last cross-county “ferry” journey on Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and made several low-altitude passes over NASA centers in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas before stopping for the night at Ellington Field near the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The trip resumed early on Thursday, with Endeavour and its carrier jet making additional flyovers - one over Tucson, Arizona, in a salute to former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut who commanded Endeavour’s final flight on his last mission in late May 2011.
Giffords, still recuperating from a gunshot wound to the head suffered in an attempt on her life last year, watched the flyover from the roof of a Tucson parking garage with her husband and mother, according to former aide C.J. Karamargin, who joined them.
“When it came into view, Mark said, ‘There’s my plane!’” Karamargin recounted. “Gabby was just elated, hooting and hollering like the rest of us were.”
From Arizona, Endeavour and its carrier jet flew on to California, where the spacecraft was built two decades ago, for the landing at Edwards Air Force Base.
The sprawling installation used to serve as the primary landing site for NASA’s shuttle program before the space agency built a landing facility for the orbiters at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Edwards then became the principal backup landing spot for shuttles in case of bad weather at Cape Canaveral.
Endeavour made seven landings at Edwards during its active tenure at NASA, most recently in November 2008.
The shuttle was scheduled to depart Edwards on Friday for its very last ferry flight, and the final airborne journey of the entire space shuttle fleet, headed for Los Angeles International Airport.
The 75-ton (68-tonne) winged spacecraft will then undergo preparations to be moved next month through city streets from the airport to its permanent home at the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles, where the shuttle will be put on public display starting Oct. 30.
To make way for the mammoth orbiter along its 12-mile (19 km) route to the museum, crews are cutting down nearly 400 trees, raising overhead utility wires and temporarily removing hundreds of utility poles, street lights and traffic signals. The science center has agreed to plant 1,000 new trees to replace those slated for removal.
Endeavour was built as a replacement for Challenger, the shuttle lost in a 1986 launch accident that killed seven astronauts. It went on to fly 25 missions, including 12 to build and outfit the space station, and logged nearly 123 million miles (198 million km) in flight during 4,671 orbits.
Endeavour is the second of NASA’s three surviving shuttles to be sent to a museum. Discovery, NASA’s oldest surviving shuttle, is on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center outside Washington.
Atlantis, which flew NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission in July 2011, will be towed down the road to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in November.