SM PIER — Hundreds of people from all over southern and central California packed the Santa Monica Pier Friday morning for a glimpse of the space shuttle Endeavour as it passed over as part of a five-hour aerial tour of the Golden State’s landmarks.
Endeavour, strapped to the back of a 747 jumbo jet and escorted by two other aircraft, approached from the direction of Malibu 10 minutes before noon, bearing down on the pier on its way to Downtown Los Angeles.
Kenny Munoz of Northridge had been waiting since 9 a.m.
On a stroke of luck, Munoz had been in Florida on a business trip when the shuttle launched for its final mission in May 2011. Sure, he had to jump on a plane from Miami to Orlando and rent a car to get to the Kennedy Space Center, but Munoz felt he had to cash in on the rare opportunity.
“Now it’s flying back in for the last time,” he said.
Two family members, Leslie and Becky Munoz, drove in at 6:30 a.m. from Bakersfield to watch the shuttle fly by.
They only learned after they arrived at Kenny Munoz’ house that the shuttle was scheduled to make an appearance in their hometown, but they weren’t too disappointed.
“It’s thrilling,” Becky Munoz said.
Endeavour watchers gathered along the railings. Those who arrived early had taken up the benches, while others came packing their own collapsible chairs.
Judy and Brandi Lewis drove in and snagged their north-facing bench at 9 a.m. Judy was armed with a camera with a lens a paparazzo would have been proud to own.
It belongs to her son, Brandi’s husband, who is serving in the Army in Afghanistan.
An “aficionado of anything that flies,” the son begged for a shot of Endeavour.
“His e-mail said, ‘Please please please please,’ bold, underlined and in caps,” Brandi Lewis said.
Endeavour began its journey from Edwards Air Force Base in Palmdale, 100 miles from Los Angeles.
By that time, Santa Monica was already preparing to welcome it, the Ferris wheel lit up in red, white and blue from 4 a.m. to daybreak.
People lined up for free rides at the Ferris wheel later that day, hoping to be the lucky person that would see Endeavour coming just as they hit the top.
According to reports, the shuttle passed over Sacramento at 9:50 a.m., also buzzing the Golden Gate Bridge, Hollywood sign and other icons on its way to LAX. There it will stay until it makes its way by ground transport to the California Science Center, its new home.
The five-hour trip might feel long to most passengers, but Endeavour’s an old hand.
According to the Associated Press, Endeavour spent 299 days in space and orbited Earth almost 4,700 times for a total of 123 million miles over the course of its 25 missions.
Endeavour is the second of three retired shuttles to find a place to settle down. The first, Discovery, took up residence at the Smithsonian Institution’s hangar in Virginia.
Atlantis, the last shuttle to go into space, will stay in Florida.
According to NASA, Endeavour was named by students after a ship that sailed the South Pacific in 1768. The ship and its crews were responsible for repairing the Hubble Space Telescope and orbiting satellites.
In its final mission, Endeavour delivered the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 to the International Space Station.
The shuttles’ final journeys mark the end of a 30-year era of space flight for the United States.
According to NASA, unlike the Apollo capsules that came before, the shuttles did not employ parachutes, instead gliding back on a pair of wings to a runway.
The first reusable spacecraft to carry humans into orbit, the shuttles carried satellites and even entire laboratories for experiments.
They were also used to build the International Space Station, the world’s largest spacecraft, which was put together while in orbit.
Space travel isn’t cheap.
“For fiscal year 2010, the average cost to prepare and launch a shuttle mission was approximately $775 million,” according to a NASA fact sheet.
Endeavour, which was built to replace Challenger after it exploded in 1986, cost $1.7 billion to build. The entire shuttle program has cost $113.7 billion.
If you ask Lee, a 41-year resident of Santa Monica who did not wish to give her last name, that money might have been better spent elsewhere.
Becky Munoz probably wouldn’t give the same answer.
Although she will now have to face the drive back to Bakersfield, she was overjoyed to see Endeavour pass by on its final flight.
“It was worth it,” she said.