LOS ANGELES, Oct 12 (Reuters) - The retired space shuttle Endeavour sets off on Friday for a road trip unlike any of its previous journeys, one that will see it crawl through the streets of Los Angeles instead of hurtling through the solitary reaches of space.
Endeavour will nose out of Los Angeles International Airport well before dawn as it begins a two-day ground journey atop a massive wheeled transporter to its final resting place at the California Science Center on the edge of downtown.
"It's a national treasure; this is something that we all paid for with our taxes," Ken Phillips, aerospace curator at the science center, said of the hulking craft that flew from 1992 to 2011 and will go on public display later this month.
He described the shuttle, which was largely built in Southern California, as a workhorse for the American space program and said it represented "the very best, I think, of what people can do when they decide to cooperate and do good things."
The science center beat out a number of other institutions when NASA chose it as the permanent home for the 80-ton winged spaceship, which was taken out of service due to the historic end of the NASA shuttle program that began with a launch in 1981.
Endeavour hop-scotched across the country from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the back of a modified Boeing 747. It was parked at the airport after arriving on Sept. 21 following a ceremonial piggyback flight around California during which spectators on the ground cheered and wept.
Workers have felled 400 curbside trees along Endeavour's 12-mile (19-km) route to clear its way. The science center will plant more than 1,000 trees to make up for their removal.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry said that when Endeavour flew over the city last month, she and her colleagues ran up to the roof of City Hall where they watched it with tears in their eyes.
STAR AT A RALLY
Perry said she remained apprehensive about the road journey, when she said Endeavour will pass through intersections with as little as 6 inches (15 cm) of clearance. She also anticipates large crowds along the way.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the space shuttle come down your neighborhood street," Perry said. "How often does that happen?"
Los Angeles police were closing streets along the planned route for what organizers are calling "Mission 26," in reference to the shuttle's 25 previous missions into space.
Soon after rolling out of the airport, the shuttle will pass through the nearby city of Inglewood where on Saturday morning it will be the star in a massive rally outside an arena where the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team once played.
Later that day, it will stop at a shopping mall in South Los Angeles where officials will speak and a dance academy started by "Fame" actress Debbie Allen will perform.
Once it arrives at the science center, it will be displayed in a temporary, hangar-style metal structure to protect it from the elements. In 2017, a special pavilion will open in which Endeavour will stand vertically, Phillips said.
The other remaining spaceships from the shuttle program have also found homes. The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., has Discovery at its Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center museum in Virginia, New York City has the prototype shuttle Enterprise at its Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, and the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral in Florida has Atlantis, whi ch the center will move to an on-site visitor complex next month.
"We have enjoyed the space shuttles, at least working here at NASA, and it's time now to let the public enjoy seeing the shuttle first-hand, getting an up-close look at it," NASA spokeswoman Lisa Malone said.
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)
Keywords: SPACE SHUTTLE/