Houston: Waving American flags and space shuttle toys, hundreds of people lined the streets and crowded the airport on Wednesday as they watched space shuttle Endeavour touch down in Houston on its way to be permanently displayed in California.
But for many, the experience was bittersweet, tinged with a feeling of having been cheated of something they believe should rightfully have been theirs.
“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 walking frame just before Endeavour, riding piggy back on a jumbo jet, 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. Many call it home years after they retire. The Johnson Space Center and an adjacent museum hug Galveston Bay.
Yet 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 asteroids and Mars. Instead, Houston got a replica that used to be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center.
“I think it’s a pretty rotten deal, basically,” said Scott Rush, 54, of Crystal Beach, Texas, wearing a T-shirt proudly proclaiming that he had witnessed Endeavour’s final launch. “The one we’re getting is a toy. An important toy, but a toy nonetheless.”
Back-to-back delays in the ferry flight resulted in one day being cut from the Houston visit. But Wednesday dawned under bright sunshine and cooler-than-normal temperatures, drawing hundreds of excited people, many of whom brought children or grandchildren along.
After landing, the Endeavour rolled slowly in front of the cheering crowd. It circled and preened like a model on the catwalk, giving awed spectators an opportunity to take pictures from a variety of angles.
“I want to go on it,” said three-year-old Joshua Lee as he headed to the landing area with his mother and grandmother.
Joshua’s mother, Jacqueline Lee of Houston, viewed the landing as an educational opportunity she had to share with her son.
“It’s history in the making and it probably will be the end and I don’t know if he’ll get to see this again,” Lee said. “I wish we were able to rally enough to have it stay here in Texas since we’ve had a major input in all the history of NASA.”
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.
Earlier on Wednesday, hundreds gathered at Cape Canaveral in Florida to bid Endeavour farewell. The shuttle will spend the night in Houston before continuing its journey to Los Angeles International Airport, where it’s scheduled to land on Friday.
In mid-October, Endeavour will be transported down city streets to the California Science Center.
This is the last flight for a space shuttle. Atlantis will remain at Kennedy for display while Discovery is already 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 retiring. It logged 123 million miles in space and circled Earth nearly 4,700 times.
Connie West, 60, of Deerfield, Kansas, viewed the landing with friends from Wichita. The group expressed sadness that the shuttle programme had ended. They felt the pain of Houstonians who felt cheated, and agreed they should have had a shuttle.
Still, the excitement of seeing one was enough on Wednesday.
“I felt awesome,” West said. “I wanted to see it make its last flight and couldn’t get there (to Florida), so this is awesome.”