LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The retired space shuttle Endeavour rolled at a snail-like pace through narrow city streets on Saturday, arriving five hours late at a key checkpoint but steadily closing in on its final destination at a museum.
Enthusiasm remained high despite the slow pace with an estimated 165,000 bystanders lining the streets to greet the spaceship.
At its current pace, the shuttle could arrive at the California Science Center at about 2 a.m. Pacific Time (0900 GMT) on Sunday, said Paula Wagner, a spokeswoman for the center.
Endeavour nosed out of Los Angeles International Airport before dawn on Friday for the 12-mile (19-km) trip to its retirement home. Organizers had expected the shuttle to complete its journey on Saturday evening but it fell behind schedule crews had to make late adjustments to clear room for it.
The shuttle, which has been a cause for cheers and expressions of awe from spectators watching it parade through the streets, will become a tourist attraction at the center. Endeavour was largely built in Southern California and was a workhorse of the U.S. space program, flying 25 missions.
Astronaut Michael Fincke, who went to space in Endeavour, said he and other astronauts on the shuttle’s parade route felt the shuttle’s road trip - one unlike any voyage it has ever taken - was special.
“We’ve seen our beautiful planet Earth from space, we’ve been weightless, we’ve been able to fly - no special effects needed when you’re in space,” Fincke told the crowd outside a south Los Angeles shopping mall.
“And I tell you what, even though we’ve been in space we would not rather be anywhere else than where we are today,” he said.
Organizers had planned to have the Endeavour arrive at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall at 2 p.m. but instead it arrived after 7 p.m. about five hours behind schedule, said the organizers, a coalition that includes the Science Center and local authorities.
A huge crowd gathered outside the mall, where a dancers and a high school marching band performed before the arrival of the Endeavour, at what was a key checkpoint because the ship had to make a 90-degree turn to the east. The trip from the mall to the museum is about 4 miles (6.4 km).
The trip has been delayed in part due to maintenance needed for the massive, wheeled transporter carrying Endeavor and the need to trim some trees along the route, organizers said.
An estimated 100,000 spectators lined Martin Luther King Boulevard to watch the final, eastward leg of the journey through working-class south Los Angeles, a spokeswoman for the move’s joint information center said.
Earlier in the day, about 65,000 people watched the shuttle head north along Crenshaw Boulevard, said Steve Ruda, a battalion chief for the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Thousands of spectators also watched earlier on Saturday when the shuttle stopped for a festival-like morning rally outside an arena in the nearby city of Inglewood.
Endeavour flew from 1992 to 2011 and was built to replace the Challenger, which exploded seconds into a 1986 launch that killed all seven crew members on board. Endeavour was taken out of service at the end of the shuttle program.
The shuttle is 122 feet (37 meters) long and 78 feet (24 meters) wide and stands 5 stories tall at the tail, which police said makes it the largest object ever to move through Los Angeles. Its combined weight with the transporter is 80 tons.
Organizers say only a few inches separate Endeavour’s wings from structures along the route, and workers have felled 400 trees along curbs to clear a path. The science center will plant more than 1,000 trees to make up for their loss.
Some street lights, traffic signals, power poles and parking meters were temporarily removed.
The project to move Endeavour will cost more than $10 million, said Shell Amega, a science center spokeswoman. Charitable foundations and corporations have donated money and services for the move.
Endeavour has hop-scotched across the country from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the back of a modified Boeing 747. It had been parked at the airport in Los Angeles since arriving on September 21 after a ceremonial piggyback flight around California.
The shuttle will be displayed in a temporary hangar-style metal structure to protect it from the elements. In 2017, a 200-foot-tall (61-meter) structure will open in which Endeavour will stand vertically, said Ken Phillips, aerospace curator at the California Science Center.
The other remaining shuttles also have found homes.
The Smithsonian in Washington has Discovery at its Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center museum in Virginia. New York City has the prototype shuttle Enterprise at its Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. And the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral has Atlantis, which the center will move to an on-site visitors complex next month.
Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Mary Slosson; Editing by David Bailey and Bill Trott