Space Shuttle Endeavour Heads to California

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The second of NASA’s retired space shuttles left the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the last time on Wednesday and headed to California to begin a new life as a museum exhibit.

After waiting out two days for the weather to clear, shuttle Endeavour, riding piggyback on top of a specially modified jumbo 747 jet, took off from the Florida spaceport shortly after dawn.

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It was the last time a space shuttle will be seen in the skies over Florida. Atlantis, the third and last surviving shuttle, will be towed down the road in November to its new home at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Discovery, the first shuttle to be decommissioned, is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center outside Washington DC.

Endeavour had a relatively short space life, by shuttle standards, just 25 missions over 20 years. But the lineup included some historic and notable flights, including a 1992 debut mission where an unprecedented three astronauts crowded into the shuttle’s airlock for an impromptu spacewalk to capture a stranded communications satellite.

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Endeavour made the first U.S. mission to build the International Space Station, attaching the Unity connecting module to the Russian-built Zarya base block.

It went on to fly 11 more missions to the space station, a research laboratory owned by 15 nations that flies about 250 miles above Earth.

The United States retired the shuttles last year after the U.S. portion of the station was finished. NASA is now working on spaceships and rockets that can travel beyond the station’s orbit and investing in private companies interested in developing their own spaceships to fly to the station and other destinations near Earth.

“It’s been a long process to wind everything down,” NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff told Discovery News.

“For some people building parts for the shuttle, the end happened a long time ago.

“There’s enough excitement now about what we’re doing next. The only hard part is we don’t have something sitting on the launch pad ready to go,” Chamitoff said.

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NASA plans two unmanned test flights of its new Space Launch System in 2014 and 2017 before the spaceship flies with a crew in 2021.

Image: Shuttle Endeavour and its carrier jet sweep past the Kennedy Space Center one last time before heading west. Credit: Kim Shiflett/NASA.