Kate Mather, Jeff Gottlieb and Rosanna Xia
LOS ANGELES - Space shuttle Endeavour has touched down at Los Angeles Airport, marking its final landing after a three-decade career in space and bringing an end to NASA's space shuttle program.
As elsewhere along its choreographed flyover in California, eager fans of the shuttle - filled with both curiosity and nostalgia - gathered at the United Airlines hangar to watch Endeavour taxi in. A man holding an American flag popped out of the roof of the cockpit of the 747 carrying Endeavour on its back.
As the shuttle flew low over the airport, Kathy Sanders-Phillips was teary-eyed.
"Oh my God," she said. "Oh my God."
Sanders-Phillips watched the shuttle from the United hangar with her husband, Ken Phillips, the aerospace curator at the California Science Center who first thought to bring an orbiter to the museum in 1991.
Phillips said he feels a personal connection to Endeavour - his college friend, Ron McNair, was one of the astronauts killed when Challenger exploded. Endeavour was built to replace Challenger.
"I have to hope Ron is looking down on this," Sanders-Phillips said, her voice breaking.
A welcome ceremony will be held in the hangar for donors and employees of the California Science Center, NASA and local foundations.
Nine-year-old Julian Caldera was there and excited he had been able to meet three astronauts on hand.
"Not many little kids get to do that," he said.
Astronaut Mike Fincke, who flew Endeavour's final mission last year, explained to Julian how shuttles land and where they sit. Fincke said he wanted to go to space as a 3-year-old, after watching astronauts walk on the moon.
The former Endeavour astronaut said he's glad to see the shuttle being well-received in Los Angeles
"I can feel the vibe; it's just electric" - but is more excited to see how it affects children like Julian. They're going to be inspired, and they're going to be the next generation to come of doctors and engineers and scientists and astronauts,"Fincke said.
"It happened for me, and I know it's going to happen for all these other kids."
Some gathered at the hangar couldn't believe this moment had finally arrived.
"It's here. It's really here," said Science Center President Jeffrey Rudolph.
Ken Phillips, aerospace curator for the museum, described it as an "adrenaline-charged day."
"It's hard to find the words to describe today," Phillips said.
In Santa Monica, crowds lined the pier as well as points along the beach as the shuttle entered L.A. County.
"Amazing, amazing, amazing," said Derek Johns, 41, of Los Angeles, who shot photos at the pier.
"I got chills," said Dave Atkinson, an El Segundo councilman who watched the shuttle from the city's overlook. "This is America at its finest."
At the charter school near the California Science Center, children cheered and ran as Endeavour made a low pass over its future home.
"That was awesome," said fifth grader Yaslynn Thomas. "Awestruck. I never thought a space shuttle would ever come to a school. I always thought it would go to a special space landing place."