Sunday, October 14, 2012

Endeavour follows the slow path home.


Endeavour squeezes past homes on Crenshaw Drive, the narrowest street on the shuttle's trip.

Louis Sahagun and Mike Anton
October 14, 2012

The shuttle Endeavour dodged plenty of space junk zipping around Earth.

The question Saturday, though, was would its wing avoid an apartment building on narrow Crenshaw Drive? Could it gingerly pivot around tall pines planted in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.? Would the streets of Inglewood and Los Angeles buckle under the weight of the 170,000-pound orbiter and its massive transport vehicle?

After months of meticulous planning, those were among the myriad challenges confronting hundreds of workers who escorted Endeavour on the last leg of its 12-mile journey to the California Science Center, where it will be displayed.

PHOTOS: Endeavour rolls through the streets of L.A.

Planners appeared to get the engineering right but not the timing. What began as a head start in the morning turned into an ever-increasing delay by night. As crowds waited along the route, officials said the shuttle would be several hours late to its destination, probably arriving sometime Sunday morning.

Endeavour's 26th and final mission came down to sweating the details. Engineers had mapped its route and possible obstructions down to the millimeter. Crews swarmed around the spacecraft like a court of handmaidens Saturday, taking down streetlights and signs, removing power lines and trimming trees.

"We've been planning for this day for six months," said Southern California Edison worker Michael Fuller. "But a plan is what you do to help you sleep at night. What counts is what we do on the fly during the big event."

After being towed by a pickup truck across a bridge spanning the 405 Freeway late Friday night, the shuttle's epic last commute resumed shortly after 6 a.m. Saturday.

Inching along at a top speed of 2 mph, the five-story-tall Endeavour dwarfed everything in its path, its black nose announcing itself like a curious puppy moving through a miniature diorama.

Thousands of cheering onlookers packed sidewalks, parking lots and rooftops along the spacecraft's route.

Endeavour made a two-hour stop at the Forum in Inglewood, arriving early to the delight of crowds and politicians who crowed about Southern California landing what they called a national treasure.

"Endeavour was born here," state Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) said. "This morning ... we have the opportunity to say, 'Welcome home.'"

The rest of the day was a game of inches as Endeavour wriggled, pitched and scooted its way across town.

"All the stuff we move is big, heavy stuff," said Steve Mitchell, one of a team of drivers who piloted the computerized 160-wheel transporter that carried Endeavour. "But nothing that means as much as this. It's just so special."

After leaving the Forum, the shuttle headed east on Manchester Boulevard but soon came up against an obstacle it wasn't built to deal with.

A tree branch.

The transporter stopped. With the flick of a joystick, its driver turned the huge dolly's wheels sideways and slowly scooted it over. Within a minute, Endeavour was rolling again.

Up ahead, Rand Brooks had been working since midnight to further widen one of Endeavour's tightest fits — a curving stretch of Crenshaw Drive where the orbiter's 78-foot wingspan crossed over lawns and driveways and came within a hair's breadth of several buildings.

Crews had placed 400 tons of compacted material on the street to keep the shuttle level with the islands at the intersection with Crenshaw Boulevard and give it more room.

"It's pretty exciting," Brooks said, grateful to be involved. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

As the shuttle approached the turn from Manchester onto Crenshaw Drive, police ushered the crowd back.

"The shuttle cannot make the turn," an officer said via loudspeaker.

As Endeavour successfully made the turn, a cheer went up.

"Aw, man — that was a beautiful hard left!" exclaimed Ajamu Tyehimba, 59, of Inglewood.

Next up: a Chinese elm tree at 84th Place and Crenshaw. Because of a curve in the road, Endeavour's left wing couldn't clear it.

The driver inched the transporter back and forth. The rear wheels shimmied over driveways. Nearby, workers trimmed low-hanging branches from another tree.

"It was awesome," said Shifon Berumen, a Whittier schoolteacher who witnessed the spectacle. "As Americans, we can accomplish great things like build a shuttle. But we're also sensitive enough to care about a tree."

After a 20-minute delay, Endeavour was rolling again.

"Back all the way up," a police megaphone blared to those in the way, "or you're going to get hit by the wingtip."

At 84th and Crenshaw, Ron Liston, 42, stood on his second-story balcony with his nieces and nephews — eye level to the shuttle when it passed.

"Awe-inspiring," he said.

Shavonne Moss, 33, was kicking back on a lawn chair in the remaining shade of a tree that had been trimmed.

"A spaceship on Crenshaw Boulevard is unheard of," she said. "It proves that anything is possible."

As Endeavour's wing hovered over him, 4-year-old Carter Robinson said he had never seen anything so big. It had to weigh 550 pounds, he estimated.

"He wanted to get on it and drive it, but they won't let us do that," said his mother, Evelyn Robinson, 30, of Los Angeles. "I hope he remembers this."

For the public, it was a parade unlike any other. For the hundreds of workers moving the delicate Endeavour, it was a day of frayed nerves.

When responsibility for securing utilities moved from Edison to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Aaron Pearson, a supervisor for Edison, could finally relax after five months of planning.

"Oh, man!" he half screamed and laughed, moments after the shuttle was out of his domain.

"I don't even have a grip on it yet," Pearson said of the experience. "I just can't wait to go see it at the museum."

As Endeavour headed north on Crenshaw Boulevard, the crowds grew into the thousands. People ran into the street and snapped pictures of the approaching monolith before police shooed them away.

About two dozen people climbed onto the rooftop of AC Japan Transmission, an auto repair shop.

"Can I go up there?" asked George Beavers, who wore a straw hat and carried a camera.

"Sure, go ahead," a man in greasy blue coveralls said with a shrug and a smile.

A rickety ladder leaning on the side of the building took the man almost to the top. Two burly mechanics hoisted him the rest of the way.

"Thanks," said Beavers, 77, of Palmdale. "I came a long way for this."

For many, it was a long wait. Endeavour ran hours behind schedule, going slower than expected to maneuver around buildings, trees and utility poles.

But the delays didn't put a damper on the crowds' spirits.

When the shuttle arrived at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza six hours late, well past sunset, everyone cheered.

Times staff writers Andrew Khouri, Angel Jennings, Joseph Serna, Marisa Gerber, Adolfo Flores, Kenneth R. Weiss, Wesley Lowery, Frank Shyong, Matt Stevens, Laura Nelson and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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