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Updated Sep 20, 2012, 5:38 pm Originally posted Sep 20, 2012, 11:51 am
The space shuttle Endeavour made a slow, low S-turn over Tucson on Thursday morning, a tribute to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her ex-astronaut husband Mark Kelly—the last man to pilot the spacecraft.
Endeavour, riding piggyback on a 747 as it makes its way to its final home at a California museum, flew at about 1,500 feet as it crossed over Tucson, making a southward arc around the University of Arizona about 11:15 a.m.
Kelly and Giffords watched the flyover from atop the Cherry Street parking garage at the UA. Thousands of onlookers crowded the Mall, craning their necks to spot the shuttle as it appeared in the distance.
"That's my spaceship," Kelly said he exclaimed as Endeavour flew overhead.
"The last time I saw the space shuttle was when I got out of it, about a little over a year ago," Kelly said.
"To see it in the air again for the very last time, is good to see," he said.
The Tucson swing was in honor of former U.S. Rep. Giffords, and came at the request of Kelly, who commanded the shuttle on its final mission. Before stepping down from Congress, Giffords served on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
As the shuttle flew past the UA, a crowd of thousands—stretching from Old Main well past Cherry Avenue—erupted into applause and cheers.
Samantha Silverman, a UA psychology student, said she was on the Mall to watch the shuttle because it was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Stuart Teichner, a Tarzana, Calif., retiree who's moving to Tucson, said he "saw the space shuttle fly over the Paris Air Show in 1983."
"Twenty-nine years later, this is just as thrilling," he said.
Two of Kelly's four missions to space were aboard the Endeavour.
"It was build after the Challenger accident—out of mostly a bunch of spare parts," Kelly said.
"Endeavour first flew before I was an astronaut," he said. "My first flight was on space shuttle Endeavour, and my last flight — it's my favorite space shuttle."
Kelly said it was fitting for the shuttle to overfly the university as it makes its way to its final home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
"The UA has a really strong connection to NASA and the space program," he said, calling the shuttle "a testament to American engineering and ingenuity."
The shuttle's 2,700 mile cross-country trip also included flyovers of much of Florida's Space Coast, NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, and areas near Houston and Clear Lake, Texas, near the Johnson Space Center.
After a stop in El Paso, the shuttle conducted low-level flyovers of White Sands Test Facility near Las Cruces, N.M., passed over Tucson, and will then land at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
After the Edwards stop, Endeavour will be flown over Moffett Field, Calif., and landmarks around Sacramento and San Francisco, before a flyover of many Los Angeles sites before landing at Los Angeles International Airport.
Endeavour completed 25 missions, spent 299 days in orbit, and orbited Earth 4,671 times while traveling 122,883,151 miles.