With 130 million miles behind it, the space shuttle Endeavour on Saturday slowly made its way through the streets of Los Angeles for the last leg of its final voyage.
Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of South Los Angeles and Inglewood to watch the shuttle delicately make the 2 mph crawl on the way to its permanent home at the California Science Center.
"It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," said 10-year-old Madelyn Munoz, who came with her parents to witness the historic event. "I can't believe how big it is."
Astronauts Greg H.
"The spaceship did its work - it was a workhorse - and it actually had some key missions in the assembly of the space station," Johnson, who was Endeavour's pilot, said in an interview. "Now Endeavour's going to inspire the next generation of scientists and space explorers."
On Saturday afternoon, overlooking the crowd off Crenshaw Boulevard, the two beamed with pride and said they were humbled by the excitement of thousands of Angelenos anxiously waiting to spot Endeavour on its last mission.
"We can feel the electricity here and we're excited to be a part of this," said Fincke, who served as Mission Specialist I on Endeavour. "This is a once-ever event."
The shuttle's journey was delayed several times throughout the day because of maneuvering difficulties - in some spots it cleared buildings and trees by only inches - and was expected to arrive to the Science Center by early Sunday morning.
Transporting Endeavour required a specialized carrier typically used to haul oil rigs, bridges and heavy equipment. The wheels can spin in any direction, allowing the shuttle to zigzag past obstacles. An operator walked alongside, controlling the movements via joystick. Several spotters along the wings looked out for hazards.
For the Manchester Boulevard bridge portion of its journey, the shuttle was pulled by a Toyota Tundra pickup. The car company filmed the event for a commercial after paying for a permit, turning the entire scene into a movie set complete with special lighting, sound and staging.
The route was selected after ruling out other options. Dismantling the shuttle would have ruined the delicate heat tiles. Helicoptering it to its destination was not feasible. Neither was crossing on freeways since the shuttle is too big to fit through the underpasses. The cost of transporting it cross-town was estimated at over $10 million.
Before Endeavour could travel through the streets, some 400 trees were chopped down, cable and telephone lines were hoisted, and steel plates were laid down to protect the streets and underground utilities.
The shuttle's final journey started at Los Angeles International Airport early Friday morning.
After crossing the Manchester Boulevard bridge over the San Diego (405) Freeway around midnight Friday, the hulking spacecraft stopped for the night before heading down for a morning meet-and-greet at The Forum.
Police halted traffic on the freeway below for the duration of the traverse, which took about three minutes.
Crews preparing for the crossing had to take down power lines, leaving about 400 residents of surrounding Inglewood without power for what was expected to be several hours.
Janet Dion, a family therapist from Manhattan Beach, marveled at the shuttle, its exterior weathered by millions of miles in space and two dozen re-entries.
"You can sense the magnitude of where it's been," Dion said, fixated on the heat tiles that protected the shuttle during the return to Earth.
A party was waiting for Endeavour at The Forum, where it arrived around 7:30a.m. People had started to arrive two hours earlier.
As its nose appeared at the corner of Manchester and Prairie Avenue, the crowd of several thousand erupted in cheers. Then they all seemed to pull out their cellphones in unison and started taking pictures.
The Endeavour is the fifth and final NASA shuttle to be built. It replaced the Challenger, which exploded after a 1986 launch, killing all of the astronauts on board.
The Endeavour has a 78-foot wingspan, stands 57 feet tall on the runway and measures 122 feet in length. It has journeyed into space 25 times, and after a final launch in May 2011 had logged 122,883,151 miles.
As the transporter rounded the corner from Manchester to Crenshaw about 10:30 a.m., crowds strained to get a glimpse of it before its massive black nose faced them like a giant, albeit elderly, dog.
"It's majestic," Teresa Vasquez said. "A beautiful monster."
The shuttle crawled down the street at its 2 mph pace but was repeatedly stopped by pesky birch trees. To avoid them, the transporter's many wheels maneuvered 20-point-turns to narrowly pass the birches planted in the sidewalk. Each time it shimmied by a tree, the crowd cheered.
"How exciting this is right in my neck of the woods," said Nikki Spencer, a local resident who walked to the corner to watch. "When you live over here, you never get anything exciting. It's all retired people here. Figured I'd roll out of bed and come take a look. I'm so shocked by the turnout."
Frederick Sutton shook his head with concern as he watched the vessel wiggle around trees.
"It's rolling now, it finally got around that tree," Sutton commented. "I thought someone forgot to take that tree out.
"It's like a two-story building with wings coming through the neighborhood. You could see the scars from flying around in space. That's good. If it was clean, I'd think they made it up. It done flew around the moon and stars and now it's rolling through the `hood!"
When Fincke spoke to the crowd and introduced fellow astronaut Kay Hire, he declared "Girls can be astronauts, too!"
The message resonated for 7-year-old Nadia Trinidad of Inglewood.
"I love astronauts," she said, adding that she'd like to be one herself. "It's cool because you get to see discoveries that no one has ever seen before."
Her 6-year-old brother, Aaron, echoed her sentiments.
"I want to discover aliens on Mars," he said.
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson also hopes the shuttle will inspire local youth.
"One day someone from our community will say, `I want to fly that sucker. I want to build that sucker. You know what? I want to build a better one'," Wesson said.
The ship is known for several firsts, including carrying the first married couple and first black female into space, along with the first Japanese national to fly on a U.S. spaceship. It also made the first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
On Oct. 30, the Science Center will put the Endeavour on display in a pavilion until a new addition called the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center is built. Along with the orbiter, the pavilion will feature video experiences and artifacts that were part of the Endeavour's space missions. A companion exhibit will relate NASA's space shuttle program to California.
Hire recalled the first time she saw Endeavour as a space shuttle engineer in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center.
"It still had that brand-new orbiter smell," she told the crowd. "Now to be here today and see this final piece of the cycle for the space shuttle Endeavour is really exciting for me because we get to now share this orbiter with all of you."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.