LOS ANGELES – It's a surreal sight residents won't soon forget: A hulking space shuttle strutting down city streets, pausing every so often to get its bearings as it creeps toward retirement.
Endeavour's terrestrial journey began before dawn Friday when it departed from the Los Angeles International Airport, rolling on a 160-wheeled carrier past diamond-shaped "Shuttle Xing" signs.
Hundreds of camera-toting spectators, some with pajama-clad children in tow, gaped as the 170,000-pound Endeavour inched by with its tail towering over streetlights and its wings spanning the roadway.
Over two days, it will trundle 12 miles at a top speed of 2 mph to its final destination – the California Science Center where it will be the centerpiece of a new exhibit.
After an initial bumpy ride and a brief delay, the shuttle pulled off a massive feat of parallel parking by backing into a shopping center parking lot for a layover as crowds cheered on.
"This is unlike anything we've ever moved before," said Jim Hennessy, a spokesman for Sarens, the contract mover.
Spectators flocked to the parking lot in the Westchester neighborhood to get a glimpse of Endeavour, which was guarded by an entourage of police, private security and construction crews.
Janet Dion, a family therapist from nearby 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.
James Nieuwdorp, a technician for a transit agency, saw Endeavour's aerial victory lap around California last month and traveled to see it again before it becomes a museum piece.
He enjoyed how the shuttle brought strangers together. There was "lot of camaraderie – something that's hard to be seen these days," he said.
After a nine-hour layover, Endeavour hit the streets Friday afternoon toward the suburb of Inglewood, home of the iconic Randy's Donut shop. As it rolled past front laws, some homeowners climbed on their roofs for a better view.
The shuttle will take another hours-long break as crews re-route power lines, causing temporary outages to several hundred homes. It will later be transferred to a special dolly towed by Toyota pickup truck for the move over Interstate 405. The automaker received a permit to film a commercial.
Shuffling a five-story-tall shuttle through urban streets was an undertaking that took nearly a year to plan. Because the 78-foot wingspan hangs over sidewalks in some locations, police enforced rolling street and sidewalk closures along the route.
The limited access frustrated some businesses that counted on huge crowds lining the curbs to boost business.
Saturday is typically the busiest day for James Fugate, who co-owns Eso Won Books in South Los Angeles. But with Endeavour expected to pass through, Fugate braced for a ho-hum day in sales.
"We don't close because we're slow. That's when you pull out a book to read," he said.
The baby of the shuttle fleet, Endeavour replaced Challenger, which exploded during liftoff in 1986, killing seven astronauts. It thundered off the launch pad 25 times, orbited Earth nearly 4,700 times and racked up 123 million miles.
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 walks alongside, controlling the movements via joystick. Several spotters along the wings are on the lookout for hazards.
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.
Endeavour will mostly travel on wide boulevards with some boasting as many lanes as a freeway. While there have been advance preparations, there was remaining work to be done during the move, including de-energizing power lines.
One of the trickiest parts occurs Saturday when Endeavour treks through a narrow residential street with apartment buildings on both sides. With its wings expected to intrude into driveways, residents have been told to stay indoors until the shuttle passes.
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.
As complex as the latest endeavor is, Southern California is no stranger to moving heavy things.
In 1946, Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose" aircraft was built in sections and hauled from Culver City to Long Beach, 30 miles away. In 1984, an old United Airlines DC-8, with its wings and tail disassembled, was towed from Long Beach to the science center.
Earlier this year, a two-story-tall chunk of granite was hauled 105 miles from a rock quarry to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Associated Press Writer Raquel Maria Dillon in Los Angeles contributed to this story.
Alicia Chang can be followed at http://twitter.com/SciWriAlicia .