The space shuttle Endeavour circled Earth 4,671 times in its 25 missions to space. But its final loop on Friday will present something somewhat alien to the spacecraft: the Los Angeles commuter.
Perched atop a modified Boeing 747, the orbiter will circle Southern California on Friday morning before landing at Los Angeles International Airport midday. The shuttle will fly 1,500 feet over several area landmarks, including the Getty Center, Griffith Observatory and Universal Studios. Disneyland, the Queen Mary and Long Beach Aquarium are also on the list, along with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge and the California Science Center in Exposition Park — the orbiter’s permanent home.
“We’ll give Endeavour a grand California welcome home,” California Science Center President Jeffrey Rudolph said.
But the shuttle’s grand aerial farewell tour has caused some concern for public safety officials, who worry about “gawking and driving” — overzealous onlookers who might stop their cars along freeways or city streets to snap photos.
“Obviously we want people to take in this majestic show,” Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Scott Kroeber said. “But if you’re driving, please drive and don’t try to take in the show simultaneously. We don’t want this to be the mother of all distracted driving incidents.”
California Highway Patrol Asst. Chief Calvin Aubrey said extra officers would be deployed in the 405 Freeway corridor to ensure that traffic continues without disruption during the flyover.
“Hopefully we can have the public’s cooperation in not taking their eyes off the road and focusing forward,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to do when you look up and see a space shuttle.”
Extra security will be also be in place at LAX to prevent loiterers, said Michael Feldman of Los Angeles World Airports. The shuttle is expected to reach Los Angeles airspace about 10:30 a.m. Friday and touch down about an hour later.
Those hoping to watch the shuttle land will have access to some of the bluffs overlooking the airport in nearby El Segundo. Beginning at 9 a.m. Friday, police will close the 300 to 600 blocks of East Imperial Avenue and the 700 block of West Imperial Avenue for public viewing.
But Endeavour’s final flight isn’t limited to the Southland. After departing Florida at dawn Wednesday, Endeavour dipped low over several NASA sites in the southern U.S. before landing in Houston, where it stayed overnight. Thursday night will be spent at Edwards Air Force base, where the shuttle is expected to land about noon.
Weather permitting, Endeavour will begin the statewide leg of its final flyover about 7:15 a.m. Friday, buzzing over Palmdale, Lancaster, Rosamond and Mojave before heading north to Sacramento. After soaring over the Capitol at about 8:30 a.m., the shuttle will turn to San Francisco for another low-level pass before it makes its way to Southern California.
Details of the flyovers have been kept under wraps because of security concerns. Weather was another factor — the shuttle’s departure from Florida was twice delayed by the threat of thunderstorms, and Rudolph said any chance of inclement weather along the route could have prompted officials to scrap some of the sites.
And although Endeavour will reach Los Angeles on Friday, a day later than originally scheduled, Rudolph said the wait was worth it.
“We’ve waited 20 years to get a space shuttle here,” he said. “One more day is not a big thing.”