Posted: Sep 20, 2012 1:35 PM
Updated: Sep 20, 2012 1:35 PM
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was "elated," and the last commander of the space shuttle Endeavour said "That's my spaceship," as the retired shuttle flew over Tucson in the couple's honor Thursday.
The shuttle did a loop over the city atop a modified jumbo jet before continuing its trek west to retirement in a Los Angeles museum.
Giffords and retired astronaut Mark Kelly watched it pass from the roof of a University of Arizona parking garage.
Giffords was "elated" and started "hooting and hollering" as soon as she saw the shuttle emerge from behind the campus athletic center, said her former aide C.J. Karamargin.
Kelly said it recalled the memory of landing the shuttle, which was challenging because it doesn't use its engines as it returns to Earth.
"Landing a space shuttle is not easy," Kelly said. "It doesn't glide very well."
The retired shuttle took off from a Houston airport Thursday morning, and will end up in Los Angeles after spending the night at Edwards Air Force Base, 100 miles north of Los Angeles, then making one last low-flying pass around the state.
The stop in Tucson was requested by Kelly, the last person to command an Endeavour mission. He and Giffords recently moved back to Tucson from Houston, where Giffords was recovering from serious injuries she suffered in a 2011 attack in which a gunman killed six people and wounded Giffords and 12 others.
Hundreds gathered on the grass mall at the University of Arizona to catch a glimpse of the Endeavor. They cheered and took photos as it crossed the blue sky.
Robert Thomas, a veterans hospital X-ray tech, was there with his wife, Marsha Colbert.
Colbert stood on a bench along a campus street taking pictures as Thomas and others whooped with joy. "It's beautiful. Oh, my god," Thomas said as it flew over.
Thursday's flyover gives NASA a chance to honor Giffords' legacy as a longtime advocate for American human spaceflight, NASA spokeswoman Lisa Malone told The Associated Press in an email. She said no additional costs would be incurred by honoring Kelly's request.
Hundreds of people gathered Wednesday to watch the shuttle land in Houston for an overnight stay, an exciting but bittersweet moment for many residents who felt spurned that Space City wasn't chosen as the final home for one of the five retired shuttles.
"I think that it's the worst thing that they can do, rotten all the way," said 84-year-old Mary Weiss, clinging to her walker just before Endeavour landed after flying low over Gulf Coast towns, New Orleans and then downtown Houston and its airports.
Space City, partly made famous by Tom Hanks when he uttered the line "Houston, we have a problem" in the movie "Apollo 13," has long tied its fortune to a mix of oil and NASA. Astronauts train in the humid, mosquito-ridden city, and many call it home years after they retire. The Johnson Space Center and an adjacent museum hug Galveston Bay.
Houston's bid for a shuttle was rejected after the White House retired the fleet last summer to spend more time and money on reaching destinations, such as Mars and asteroids. Instead, Houston got a replica that used to be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center.
"The one we're getting is a toy. An important toy, but a toy nonetheless," said Scott Rush, 54, of Crystal Beach, Texas.
Still, people came out in droves Wednesday, waving American flags and toting space shuttle toys, cameras and cellphones.
Back-to-back delays in the ferry flight resulted in one day being cut from the Houston visit. After landing, the Endeavour rolled slowly in front of the cheering crowd. It circled and preened like a runway model, giving awed spectators an opportunity to take pictures from a variety of angles.
"I want to go on it," said 3-year-old Joshua Lee as he headed to the landing area with his mother and grandmother.
The shuttle took off after sunrise Thursday, riding piggyback on a jumbo jet. It stopped at Biggs Army Airfield in El Paso, Texas, before heading toward Tucson and then on to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Calif. After spending a night there, the shuttle will head to Los Angeles International Airport on Friday.
In mid-October, Endeavour will be transported down city streets to the California Science Center, its permanent home.
NASA still plays a large role in Houston, and astronaut Clayton Anderson, who lived on the International Space Station from June to November 2007, encouraged people to focus on a new era of space exploration.
"The shuttles are a wonderful legacy, a huge part of Houston, but now it's time to look to the future," said Anderson, who lives in the Houston suburb of League City.
This is the last flight for a space shuttle. Atlantis will remain at Kennedy for display, and Discovery already is 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 before it was retired. It logged 123 million miles in space and circled Earth nearly 4,700 times.
Plushnick-Masti reported from Houston.
Ramit Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP