LOS ANGELES — The space shuttle Endeavour finished its flying days for good on Friday with a sightseeing tour that crisscrossed California and ended up at Los Angeles' airport.
Strapped to the back of a 747 jumbo jet, the pair touched down just before 1 p.m. PT (4 p.m. ET) after a state-spanning flyover that lasted nearly five hours. One of the crew members stuck an American flag out of the hatch of the jet.
The flyover took Endeavour over the state Capitol, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hollywood Sign and other icons en route to LAX, where the shuttle will be prepped for a slow-speed journey to its museum home next month.
At the Santa Monica Pier, spectators pointed their cameras skyward, and some chanted, "USA! USA!" as Endeavour swooped along the coast. "Even though it was a few seconds, it was a unique experience to witness history," said Andrew Lerner, 23, of Santa Monica.
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Thousands of spectators jammed rooftop buildings and streets in Sacramento, cheering as Endeavour made two loops around the state Capitol. A crowd of schoolchildren squealed in delight during the second flyover.
Matthew Montgomery took a break from his work as a legislative aide and brought his 2-year-old son, Tavion, to see Endeavour airborne. "I was going to leave him in daycare but thought this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal," said Montgomery, whose aunt was an engineer on the early Apollo missions.
Peggy Burke was among the hordes of camera-toting tourists who jammed the waterfront along the San Francisco Bay, reflecting on the end of an era.
"It's just a shame that the program has to end, but I'm so glad they came to the Bay Area, especially over the Golden Gate Bridge," she said. "Onward to Mars."
Because Endeavour buzzed by some of the Golden State's most iconic sights, law enforcement and transportation authorities warned motorists not to "gawk and drive."
"We want people to take in this majestic show," Los Angeles police Cmdr. Scott Kroeber said earlier this week. "But if you're driving, please drive and don't try to take in the show simultaneously."
Traffic came to a near stop along a freeway near the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory east of Los Angeles when motorists pulled off to the shoulder to watch. California Highway Patrol officers came through and blared on loud speakers for people to move on.
Extra officers were on duty along the freeways near the airport to make sure traffic flowed smoothly as the shuttle zoomed overhead. As Endeavour approached LAX, other airplanes were forced to circle and wait. Passengers on an American Airlines flight from Miami snapped pictures and shot video out their windows as the shuttle arrived.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime event," said pilot Doug Causey, who has been flying for 29 years. "That was a real treat to see something like that."
The landing at LAX marked the end of a three-day cross-country trip from Endeavour's former home at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On Wednesday, the shuttle left Florida forever and made low passes over NASA facilities in Mississippi and Louisiana. The piggyback pair spent the night at Houston's Ellington Field, near the home of Mission Control at Johnson Space Center.
On Thursday, Endeavour resumed its westward flight and made a special pass over Tucson, Ariz., to honor its last commander, Mark Kelly, and his wife, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords, who is recovering from a head wound she suffered during a mass shooting in Tucson last year, was "hooting and hollering" as Endeavour looped around her hometown, according to her former aide, C.J. Karamargin.
"That's my spaceship," Kelly said proudly.
Thursday afternoon's visit to Edwards Air Force Base brought Endeavour full circle: NASA's shuttle fleet, which retired last year after three decades of flight, was assembled in Palmdale near Edwards. The military outpost, 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Los Angeles, served as the original shuttle landing strip and remained a backup site in case of stormy weather in Florida.
Officials in California played up the shuttle connection. "We're so excited to be welcoming Endeavour home in grand style with these flyovers," said Jeffrey Rudolph, president of the California Science Center.
The cost for shipping and handling Endeavour was estimated at $28 million, to be paid for by the science center.
Past and future
The youngest shuttle, Endeavour replaced Challenger, which blew up during liftoff in 1986. NASA lost another shuttle, Columbia, in 2003 when it disintegrated during re-entry. Fourteen astronauts were killed.
During 25 missions, Endeavour spent 299 days in space and orbited Earth nearly 4,700 times, racking up 123 million miles (198 million kilometers).
On its maiden flight in 1992, a trio of spacewalking astronauts grabbed a stranded communications satellite in for repair. It also flew the first repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope to fix a faulty mirror. But most of its flights ferried cargo and equipment to the International Space Station.
Under White House orders to explore beyond low-Earth orbit, NASA is hitching rides on Russian rockets to the orbiting laboratory until private companies can provide regular service.
Endeavour is the second of three remaining shuttles to head to its retirement home. In April, Discovery arrived at the Smithsonian Institution's hangar in Virginia. Atlantis, which closed out the shuttle program, will stay in Florida. It's due to be towed a short distance to the Kennedy Space Center's visitor center in the fall.
The prototype shuttle Enterprise, which was used in aerodynamic glide tests but never flew in space, was moved out of the Smithsonian to make room for Discovery. Enterprise was flown to John F. Kennedy International Airport, shipped up the Hudson River on a barge, and put on display at New York's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.
The piggyback flights of Discovery and Enterprise became popular photo opportunities. If anything, Endeavour's star turn was more elaborate — and more widely watched. But now, with Endeavour on the ground and Atlantis staying in Florida, such flights will be a thing of the past.
Endeavour will remain at an airport hangar for several weeks as crews ready the shuttle for its own road trip. Next month, it will creep through city streets on a wheeled transporter, heading for the California Science Center near downtown.
About 400 trees will be cleared along the 12-mile (20-kilometer) route to make room, a move that has riled some residents in affected neighborhoods. Museum officials have pledged to replant double the number of chopped trees.
This report includes information from The Associated Press and NBC News.
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