Shuttle Endeavour prepped for valedictory tour, museum duty

The shuttle Endeavour, bolted to the back of a NASA jumbo jet, will take a leisurely final flight to California, giving the public one last chance to see the winged spaceplane in flight.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--The space shuttle Endeavour, veteran of 25 trips to orbit since its maiden launch two decades ago, was prepped today for takeoff on its final flight tomorrow, a cross-country tour atop a NASA 747 transport jet that will give the public one last chance to see the iconic spaceplane in flight before landing in Los Angeles Friday for work to ready the ship for museum duty.

Running two days late because of stormy weather along the Gulf Coast, Endeavour and its carrier jet are scheduled for takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center's 3-mile-long shuttle runway around 7 a.m. ET tomorrow.

The space shuttle Endeavour, bolted to the back of NASA's 747 transport jet, stands ready for its final flight, from the Kennedy Space Center to Los Angeles where it will go on display at the California Science Center at the end of October. William Harwood/CBS News

If all goes well, the transport jet and its 155,462-pound payload will land at Los Angeles International Airport around 2 p.m. Friday ET (11 a.m. PT). The shuttle will be housed in a United Airlines hanger until mid-October, when it will be hauled along city streets to its new home at the California Science Center near downtown Los Angeles.

The long-awaited move is the last time a space shuttle will take to the air, following similar museum runs for the prototype shuttle Enterprise, now on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City, and the veteran shuttle Discovery, on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.

NASA's third surviving orbiter, the Atlantis, will remain at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In November, the spaceplane will be hauled 10 miles to a new $100 million display facility under construction at the spaceport's privately operated Visitor Complex. The new facility is scheduled to open next summer.

For Endeavour's final flight, the Federal Aviation Administration has approved 1,500-foot flyovers of multiple NASA centers, towns, and cities along the way, including the Florida "space coast," NASA's Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and Lockheed Martin's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans where the shuttle's external tanks were manufactured.

If all goes well, Endeavour will end the first day of its cross-country flight with a low-level fly-over of Houston before landing at Ellington Field just outside the Johnson Space Center around 11:45 a.m. ET (10:45 a.m. CT). Parked near NASA Hangar 990, the spacecraft will remain on public display for the rest of the day.

At sunrise Thursday, Endeavour and its transport jet will take off and fly west, refueling at Biggs Army Airfield in El Paso, Texas, and then flying over the White Sands Test Facility near Las Cruces, N.M., on the way to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles.

The shuttle Endeavour completed 25 space missions since its maiden launch in 1992, logging 299 days off planet covering 122,883,151 miles over 4,671 orbits. William Harwood/CBS News

The tour will continue Friday morning with low-level flyovers of San Francisco, NASA's Ames Research Center, Sacramento and other communities before heading back to southern California for another series of low-altitude passes.

A NASA team will use a pair of cranes to carefully remove Endeavour from its transport jet. It will be housed temporarily in a United Airlines hangar before the trip to the California Science Center around October 13. Starting October 30, the space shuttle will be on display at the Samuel Oschin Space Shuttle Endeavour Display Pavilion at the science center.

Named after Capt. James Cook's famed sailing ship, the HMS Endeavour, NASA's youngest shuttle, was approved in 1987 to replace the shuttle Challenger, destroyed in a launch mishap January 28, 1986. Rockwell International completed the $2.2 billion orbiter in 1991 and it blasted off on its first mission May 7, 1992, a dramatic flight to repair a stranded communications satellite.

Endeavour went on to fly 24 more missions, including multiple flights to help assemble the International Space Station. Its final space mission, STS-134, ended in May 2011. At that point, the ship had spent 299 days off planet, logging 122,883,151 miles over 4,671 orbits.

On April 12, 2011, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced the museums that NASA had selected to host the orbiters, settling on New York, Washington, Los Angeles and the Kennedy Space Center. Ownership of Atlantis was transferred to the California Science Center on October 11, 2011.

Getting Discovery to the Smithsonian Institution's display hangar at Dulles International Airport was relatively straightforward. The Enterprise was flown to John F. Kennedy International Airport and then moved by barge to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

Getting Endeavour to the California Science Center is a much more complex affair, requiring city planners, engineers and museum officials to map out a course through 12 miles of Inglewood and Los Angeles city streets, moving hundreds of trees and repositioning power lines and traffic signals to accommodate the shuttle's 78-foot wingspan and its iconic vertical tail fin, which will tower nearly six stories above street level.

"This will mark the first and only time a space shuttle will travel through 12 miles of public urban streets. It's also one of the biggest objects ever transported down an urban corridor," the California Science Center says on its web site. "A large team -- the California Science Center, the cities of LA and Inglewood, logistics, tree and utility and engineering experts -- have spent hundreds of hours preparing for Endeavour's complex journey.

"To make way for the Endeavour, we picked routes through the cities that would have the least impact on surroundings and we'll be using a state-of-the art Endeavour Transportation System that will allow us to maneuver precisely around trees, light poles and utility poles wherever possible. Pruning is also another tool being utilized in this effort. Thousands of trees along the route are being preserved and protected as a result of this careful planning."

In Inglewood, 128 trees are being removed and replaced with 256 new trees at a cost of more than $500,000, money donated by the Science Center Foundation. Another 256 trees in Los Angeles are expected to be removed and replaced with 530 new trees, the science center says on its web page. The Science Center Foundation is donating more than $1 million to cover the costs in Los Angeles.

"The vast majority of trees being removed in Los Angeles are small trees less than 15 feet tall or have a trunk diameter at breast height less than 12 inches," according to the Web site. "Fifty-four of the trees to be removed are large trees, five of which will be transplanted. Many of these large trees to be removed are invasive trees that are causing street damage or posing safety hazards to the public. After we remove them to make way for the Endeavour, our team will replace them, two to one, where indicated by civic agencies, at no cost to the cities, with urban-friendly trees."

The Los Angeles Times reported final approval to remove 265 trees -- pushing the total to nearly 400 -- was granted Monday.

"To garner residents' support, the center sweetened the deal at the last minute and agreed to replant four times as many trees, repair additional sidewalks and offer scholarships and job training," the paper reported.