CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Space shuttle Endeavour embarked on its new life as a museum piece Wednesday, leaving behind its NASA home and heading west on the last ferry flight of its kind.
Bolted to the top of a jumbo jet, NASA's youngest shuttle departed Kennedy Space Center at sunrise on the first leg of its flight to California.
Hundreds of people — astronauts, space center workers, tourists and journalists — gathered at the runway to bid Endeavour farewell following two days of rain delays. Crowds also lined the nearby beaches as the shuttle swooped in and out of low clouds in one final show.
Onlookers waved, saluted, blew kisses and cheered as Endeavour made one last swoop over its old landing strip, and then aimed for the Gulf of Mexico.
"You know what? I am feeling a tremendous amount of pride," said astronaut Kay Hire, who flew aboard Endeavour two years ago.
Endeavour will make it as far as Houston on Wednesday. That's home to Mission Control and all the astronauts. Along the way, low flyovers were planned over Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where external fuel tanks were built during the 30-year shuttle program.
The shuttle is due to arrive at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday. In mid-October, it will be transported down city streets to the California Science Center.
If Endeavour couldn't remain anchored at the International Space Station, its main destination in recent years, then the science center is an ideal final stop, said astronaut Gregory Chamitoff. He will be on hand for Endeavour's arrival in Los Angeles.
Chamitoff grew up in California and flew to the space station in spring 2011 on Endeavour's final trip to orbit.
"I guess I didn't really know how I would feel until I woke up, and I think this is more exciting than it is sad for me," he said.
This is the last flight for a space shuttle. Atlantis will remain at Kennedy for display. Discovery is already at the Smithsonian Institution, parked at a hangar in Virginia since April.
Endeavour — the replacement for the destroyed Challenger shuttle — made its debut in 1992 and flew 25 times in space before retiring. It logged 123 million miles in space and circled Earth nearly 4,700 times.
The back-to-back delays in the ferry flight resulted in one day being cut from the Houston visit. The city was one of the bidders for a permanent shuttle exhibit, but had to settle for a mock-up from Kennedy. It lost out to New York City for the Enterprise, the shuttle prototype that was housed for years at the Smithsonian.
NASA retired its shuttle fleet last summer, under the direction of the White House, to spend more time and money on reaching destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Asteroids and the planet Mars are on the space agency's radar for crewed missions.