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This week, the space shuttle Endeavour begins a long cross-country trip to its retirement home. It is piggybacking on a jumbo jet from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Los Angeles, where it will be housed in a museum. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that after the shuttle arrives at the Los Angeles Airport, the last leg of its journey will boldly take it where no shuttle has been before - through the streets of L.A.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Space shuttle Endeavour is big. The tip of its tails is five stories off the ground. Its wingspan is 78 feet. And this giant white spaceship will have to be driven through 12 miles of urban streets. Ken Phillips says he knows the route well.
KEN PHILLIPS: I come to work that way every day.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Phillips is a curator at the California Science Center, which won a fierce competition last year to get one of NASA's retired shuttles. The shuttle will be a surreal sight, riding on top of a special transporter that will slowly take it down wide commercial boulevards. Phillips says Endeavor will pass by stores and fast food joints.
PHILLIPS: There are McDonald's along the way, absolutely. There are McDonald's everyplace in L.A. So, McDonald's, maybe a Starbucks or two.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The two day, one mile per hour trip is scheduled for mid-October. And the planning for it has rivaled the amount of preparation it used to take to launch Endeavor into space. Phillips says taking the shuttle apart and transporting it in pieces just wasn't possible because of the way it's covered in heat shield tiles.
PHILLIPS: You couldn't take the tail off it. You can't pull the wings off. And do things like we could with other aircraft.
MONTAGNE: So a team of engineers donated hundreds of hours to figuring out the best route from the airport to the science center. They had to find streets that were wide enough, not too steep, and able to bear the weight of the 170,000-pound spacecraft. They used computer simulations and lasers to precisely measure distances to possible obstructions, everything from buildings to traffic lights. A lot of stuff has to be moved.
PHILLIPS: For almost seven months now, we've been elevating power lines so that the tail can clear the power lines.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Workers have also been cutting down trees. Nearly 500 trees need to go. And that's upset some local residents. The science center says the vast majority are small trees. It's promised to not just replace them but plant even more, in a 2-for-1 deal. Local officials have approved the plans.
Mawusi Watson is chief of staff to the city administrator for Inglewood, which is the town right next to the airport.
MAWUSI WATSON: This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And in municipal government, it's rare that you get an opportunity to participate in such a nationally significant event.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even with obstructions gone, the route will sometimes be a tight squeeze. Ken Phillips says at some spots, there's clearances of just six inches or so.
PHILLIPS: And as a curator, to be perfectly candid, that makes me a little nervous.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the shuttle's tiles were designed to withstand the extreme heat of re-entering Earth's atmosphere, but they're actually very fragile.
PHILLIPS: You could take your thumb, for example, and just punch it right through one of the tiles.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: After Endeavour is safely at its final resting place, NASA will have delivered three of its four shuttles. The others went to New York and outside Washington, D.C. The last shuttle left will be Atlantis, and it will make the shortest trip of all. It's staying in Florida, at the visitor center right next door to the Kennedy Space Center.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.