By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The space shuttle Endeavour always had plenty of elbow room while soaring around Earth. But to make way for its slow 12-mile (19-km)journey through city streets next month to its final destination at a Los Angeles museum, some trees must fall.
Clearing an unobstructed route for the retired spaceship to take from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center will require cutting down nearly 400 trees in all, and the temporary removal of hundreds of utility poles, street lights and traffic signals, officials say.
But the science center, which is organizing the two-day move, promises to plant 1,000 new trees in place of those taken down. It also has vowed to keep traffic problems to a minimum and avoid disruption of electricity and other utility services.
"It's quite an endeavor," science center president Jeffrey Rudolph said of the project. He told Reuters planning began the day after his museum was chosen in April 2011 as one of four permanent venues for NASA's newly decommissioned space shuttles.
Nothing like it has ever been moved through city streets.
The 75-ton spaceship stretches 122 feet in length, measures 78 feet from wingtip to wingtip and will stand more than five stories tall, lying on its belly on a special rolling platform that will carry it at an average speed of a mile an hour.
The transport vehicle, which can turn at sharp angles, is "driven" via remote control by an operator who walks beside it, Rudolph said. The work is estimated to cost about $10 million and is being paid for through donations.
"This is a national treasure," he said. "It's not just moving something through the streets. It's moving something that will inspire children and adults of all ages."
Added to the shuttle fleet after Challenger was destroyed by an accidental explosion that killed seven astronauts in 1986, Endeavour has flown 25 missions and logged nearly 123 million miles (198 million km) in flight during 4,671 orbits.
FOREST FOR THE TREES
Its impending arrival has generated much public anticipation. But tree-removal plans sparked opposition by many residents in neighborhoods through which Endeavour will pass.
Rudolph said the museum has taken pains to limit arboreal impacts as much as possible to smaller or sickly trees, those considered invasive species and those likely to be removed later because of sidewalk damage or future light-rail construction. More than a quarter of them are on airport property.
"We believe we'll leave the neighborhoods with far more trees and healthier trees," he said.
Endeavour was scheduled to travel piggyback on top of a specially modified 747 jet plane en route from Florida to California this week. But its departure from the Kennedy Space Center for the first leg of its final flight was delayed for a day until Wednesday due to bad weather.
NASA said Endeavour is now expected to arrive on Friday at the Los Angeles airport, where the mammoth orbiter will be readied for ground transport to the science center, located in downtown L.A.'s Exposition Park.
Preparations were already under way along its route, which starts by crossing two runways that will be briefly shut down before dawn on October 12 as the shuttle rolls out to the street.
In addition to removing trees and other obstacles, crews have spent weeks raising the height of above-ground power, phone and cable lines that run horizontally across Endeavour's path.
Three sets of high-voltage lines that cannot be permanently raised will instead be removed and replaced one at a time to allow Endeavour to pass. And large steel plates will be laid on the ground in front of the ship to reinforce sections of pavement that might otherwise be compromised.
As for the loss of trees, none slated to be chopped down is a native species or "heritage tree," Rudolph said. Replacements will be boxed trees that already stand 10 to 14 feet tall.
He said museum staff have worked with residents to map out a route requiring the fewest possible tree removals.
If all goes as planned, Endeavour will go on public display at the museum on October 30. Eventually, the ship will be exhibited upright, attached to two actual solid-rocket boosters and a replica of its giant external fuel tank, all connected to a partial replica of a launch tower.
"It will be truly jaw-dropping when you walk in and look in the building," Rudolph said.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)