Image: The space shuttle Endeavour atop Boeing 747 jumbo jet lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California
Gene Blevins  /  Reuters
Endeavour and its carrier jet land at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Thursday, making an overnight stop en route to Los Angeles.
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updated 9/20/2012 4:51:19 PM ET 2012-09-20T20:51:19

The 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.

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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 (160 kilometers) 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.

Giffords 'elated'
Endeavour's highly anticipated homecoming was twice delayed by stormy weather along the Gulf of Mexico. On Wednesday, it departed from its old home base at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, soared over other 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, on Thursday morning, it flew over the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, an emergency shuttle landing site that was used just 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 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.

PhotoBlog: Scenes from Endeavour's Western tour

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.

Space shuttle Endeavour, Joey Morrison
David J. Phillip  /  AP
Joey Morrison adjusts his space helmet after watching Endeavour and its carrier jet land Wednesday at Ellington Field in Houston.

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.

Endeavour flew 25 times, mostly to supply the International Space Station. It spent 299 days in space and circled Earth nearly 4,700 times, logging 123 million miles.

The space shuttle has deep roots in California: The main engines were manufactured in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. The heat shield tiles that protected the shuttle during re-entry were invented in Silicon Valley. The shuttle's "fly-by-wire" technology was developed in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey.

Shuttle parts from California and other plants around the country were shipped to Rockwell International's assembly factory in Palmdale near Edwards. For the early part of the shuttle program, landings occurred in the desert before switching to Florida. Edwards remained the backup landing site.

Where the shuttles are ending up
Endeavour is the second of three surviving shuttles to travel to its retirement home. In April, Discovery landed at the Smithsonian Institution's annex in Virginia after victory laps around the White House, the Capitol and the Washington Monument.

Atlantis will remain in Florida and will be towed in November to Kennedy Space Center's visitor center.

Enterprise, a prototype that flew in approach and landing tests but never went into space, was flown to New York on a carrier jet and then towed up the Hudson River by barge in June. It's now on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan.

After three decades of service, NASA permanently grounded the shuttles last year under a White House mandate to focus on destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, with goals to land astronauts on an asteroid and eventually on Mars.

The shuttle's main job was hauling spare parts and cargo to the space station, which is near completion. Until private companies can provide regular taxi service to the giant orbiting lab, NASA is relying on Russian rockets.

NASA deeded Endeavour to the California Science Center last year. The estimated coast-to-coast shipping and handling costs is $28 million, to be paid for by the science center. A final cost has not been calculated. NASA officials have said it didn't cost extra to add the Tucson overflight to the itinerary because it was on the way.

After landing at LAX Friday, Endeavour will undergo several weeks of preparations for its last mission: inching through the streets of Los Angeles in early October to its museum home, a 12-mile crawl that required chopping down hundreds of trees and rerouting power lines.

For shuttle workers, it's a "bittersweet moment. The shuttle is finally retired and done. But for us, it's a great beginning of its next mission," said museum president Jeffrey Rudolph.

Davenport reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writer Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston contributed to this report.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Space shuttle Endeavour piggybacks on jumbo jet

Photos: The life of space shuttle Endeavour

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  1. Special delivery

    Endeavour was the last space shuttle to join NASA's fleet: It was built to replace the shuttle Challenger, which was lost in an explosion shortly after launch in 1986. This view shows Endeavour perched atop a modified Boeing 747 on May 2, 1991, beginning the ferry flight from Palmdale, Calif. - where the shuttle was built - to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First liftoff

    Endeavour lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 7, 1992, beginning its first mission. The STS-49 mission's primary task was the repair of the Intelsat VI telecommunications satellite. Endeavour was the only shuttle to make its maiden flight from Pad 39B. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grab that satellite!

    Endeavour astronauts Richard Hieb, Thomas Akers and Pierre Thuot hold onto the 4.5-ton Intelsat VI satellite after making a six-handed "capture" on May 13, 1992. The satellite failed to rise above low Earth orbit when it was launched in 1990. During Endeavour's maiden mission, astronauts retrieved the satellite, attached it to a new upper-stage booster and relaunched it to its intended geosynchronous orbit. This mission marked the first time that three people from the same spacecraft walked in space at the same time. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Science in space

    Endeavour astronauts Jan Davis, left, and Mae Jemison prepare to deploy the lower body negative pressure apparatus on Sept. 15, 1992. Scientific research was the main focus of this Spacelab-J mission, also known as STS-47. The mission's crew included the first African-American woman to fly in space (Mae Jemison) and the only husband-and-wife team to go into space together (Jan Davis and Mark Lee). (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fixing Hubble

    Astronauts flew on Endeavour to take on the first Hubble servicing mission in December 1993. In this picture, spacewalkers Story Musgrave and Jeffrey Hoffman perform an orbital ballet. The coastline of western Australia is visible below. The complex and highly successful repair mission allowed Hubble, which was launched with a defective mirror, to see into the universe with unprecedented clarity. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Building the station

    Endeavour spacewalker Jim Newman holds onto the International Space Station's Unity connecting module as he removes covers and works on connecting cables on Dec. 7, 1998. The STS-88 flight marked the shuttle fleet's first space station assembly mission. (AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Erroneous endeavor

    The shuttle Endeavour sits on its launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 11, 2007. "Endeavor" is spelled incorrectly on the banner. The shuttle was named after the HMS Endeavour, the British sailing ship that carried Captain James Cook on his first voyage of discovery from 1768 to 1771. That's why Endeavour reflects the British spelling of the word. (Eliot J. Schechter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Spacewalkers at work

    During the first spacewalk of the STS-118 mission, on Aug. 11, 2007, astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Canada's Dave Williams (out of frame) attach a new segment of the International Space Station's truss and retract a collapsible radiator. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Class portrait

    The crew members of Endeavour's STS-118 crew pose for their official portrait on Aug. 8, 2007. From left are Rick Mastracchio, Barbara Morgan, pilot Charles Hobaugh, mission commander Scott Kelly, Tracy Caldwell, Canadian astronaut Dave Williams and Alvin Drew. During this flight, Morgan became the first educator astronaut to go into orbit. In 1986, she was the backup for Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who died in the Challenger explosion. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Great view

    Endeavour spacewalker Rick Mastracchio relocates communications equipment on the International Space Station during an outing on Aug. 15, 2007. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A gouge in the tiles

    Tiles on the underside of the space shuttle Endeavour show evidence of damage in a photo taken on Aug. 12, 2007, using the shuttle's robotic arm and a camera-tipped extension boom. The close-up imagery helped mission managers determine that the gouge would pose no threat during Endeavour's atmospheric re-entry. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Eye of the hurricane

    Crew members aboard the shuttle Endeavour captured this picture of Hurricane Dean's eye in the Caribbean on Aug. 18, 2007. The STS-118 mission ended on Aug. 21, one day earlier than planned, to avoid potential complications due to the storm. Forecasters worried that Hurricane Dean could have swept over Houston around the time of landing - but in the end, the storm took a different course. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. In control

    NASA Administrator Michael Griffin watches the liftoff of the space shuttle Endeavour from the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 14, 2008. The STS-126 mission delivered two spare bedrooms as well as a second kitchen and bathroom to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Repairs at the pad

    Workers perform repairs on the shuttle Endeavour's external fuel tank at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad on June 14, 2009. The launch team detected a leak of hydrogen fuel from the tank, forcing a delay in Endeavour's STS-127 launch. The mission's main task was the delivery of the final segment of Japan's Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station. (Tim Jacobs / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lightning strikes

    A giant bolt of lightning hits Endeavour's Florida launch pad on July 10, 2009. Technical problems and severe weather forced five delays in Endeavour's STS-127 launch. (Gene Blevins / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Liftoff at last!

    The space shuttle Endeavour rises from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on July 15, 2009, on the STS-127 mission's sixth launch attempt. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Parting glance

    The space shuttle Endeavour is photographed from the International Space Station soon after its departure on July 28, 2009. A Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station is visible in the foreground. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Twilight of the shuttle

    The shuttle Endeavour is silhouetted against different layers of the sunlit atmosphere during its approach to the International Space Station on Feb. 9, 2010. The primary payloads for Endeavour's STS-130 mission were the Tranquility module and the Cupola observation deck and control station. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Check out this view!

    Astronaut George Zamka, Endeavour's commander for the STS-130 mission, peeks out a window of the International Space Station's newly installed Cupola observation deck on Feb. 19, 2010. The Cupola provides an unparalleled view of Earth below. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Tanks for the memories

    The external fuel tank for Endeavour's final mission, STS-134, is transported to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 14, 2010. STS-134's main payload is the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an international physics experiment. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The view from above

    The space shuttle Endeavour is lowered into place for attachment to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 1, 2011. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Greeting the day

    The sun rises as photographers gather on a hill to take pictures shortly after the shuttle Endeavour's arrival at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on March 11, 2011. (Roberto Gonzalez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Into the clouds

    Photographers track the space shuttle Endeavour's ascent as it pierces the clouds and disappears after launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16. (Craig Rubadoux / Daytona Beach News-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Godspeed, Endeavour!

    Spectators react as the space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16. Hundreds of thousands of people watched the start of the next-to-last space shuttle flight. (Scott Audette / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Above the clouds

    Stefanie Gordon captured this remarkable picture of the space shuttle Endeavour rising above Florida's cloud cover on May 16 while she was on a commercial flight from New York to Palm Beach, Fla. (Stefanie Gordon / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The last spacewalk

    NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff holds a handrail during the fourth and last spacewalk conducted by the shuttle Endeavour's crew at the International Space Station on May 27. Chamitoff and astronaut Michael Fincke (visible in the reflections from Chamitoff's helmet visor) transferred an inspection boom system, completing U.S. assembly of the station. The May 27 outing marked the last scheduled spacewalk to be conducted by a space shuttle crew. (Nasa T.V. via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Night passage

    Backdropped by a nighttime view of Earth and the starry sky, the space shuttle Endeavour is seen docked to the International Space Station on May 28. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Landing in the dark

    The space shuttle Endeavour lands for the last time at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 1, 2011. The touchdown capped Endeavour's 16-day mission to deliver a $2 billion science experiment to the International Space Station on NASA's next-to-last shuttle flight. (Joe Skipper / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Blastoff into history

    A NASA poster pays tribute to Endeavour and its space missions over the past two decades. The shuttle is shown rising to orbit, with patches for each of its missions laid out in a spiral. The HMS Endeavour, which inspired the spaceship's name, is shown at lower right. At upper left, pictures of Endeavour are framed in the windows of the Cupola. The background image depicts the nebula NGC 602 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, which was first serviced by Endeavour in 1993. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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