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Plodding pace for Endeavour on MLK Blvd. as pines are trimmed

October 14, 2012 |  5:30 am

As 4 a.m. approached, the pines of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard proved to be a challenge for the space shuttle Endeavour.

The spacecraft's wings came within inches of the trees, forcing crews to do last-minute trims. In the predawn darkness, a crewman shined a flashlight on the tip of Endeavour's wingspan, which is so broad that it often hung over the boulevard’s sidewalks.

Hour by hour, the delays of Endeavour seemed to stretch even longer. On Saturday afternoon, the shuttle was only three hours behind its scheduled arrival of 9 p.m. that night. But by 2:30 a.m., it was about eight hours behind schedule, making it possible that Endeavour would arrive well after Sunday breakfast plates had been cleared away.

PHOTOS: Endeavour rolls through the streets of L.A.

The seemingly interminable delays wore on the police officers who were escorting the shuttle, who had now been working 18 or 19 hours. They appeared weary, with baggy eyes. A fleet of 12 LAPD cruisers sat behind the shuttle, as one fatigued officer riding shotgun rested his elbow on the window edge, resting his head on his fist.  

A team of replacement officers, who were working their regular 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, were called in to provide relief at the last moment and were ordered to stay with Endeavour until it reached the California Science Center museum, its final retirement home.

When it would actually arrive there, nobody knew for certain.

"We're used to stuff like this," said LAPD Sgt. Kate Stanwix, one of those brought in to relieve her colleagues. "What's the use of complaining?" 

FULL COVERAGE: Endeavour's move through L.A.

Officials had known the path of Endeavour on the first stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard would be difficult. They decided they wanted to protect the trees planted in honor of the slain civil rights leader, so they designed a complex series of zigzag, crab-like movements to pass Endeavour through the relatively narrow road.

At one point, crews lowered the shuttle just to avoid a leafy tree -- and the spacecraft was able to sneak under a branch. Workers only had to snip off a bit of the bark.

"Amazing they can control this machinery to control this huge spaceship -- how they can save the tree -- that was like inches," said Eleuterio Rojas of Leimert Park, moments after the shuttle's right wing cleared a tree by about an inch or so in front of Audubon Middle School.

The meticulousness of the moving crews was working: the shuttle has been moving since Thursday night without suffering even a scratch.

Even as temperatures dipped in the middle of the night, hundreds of delighted onlookers took in the view, attracting both the pajama-clad in lawn chairs and women arriving from clubs, wearing leather boots, short skirts and tight, strapless dresses.

The shuttle captured the imagination of Brad and Navelle Cohen of Santa Monica, who were busy snapping photos of the shuttle at 3:30 a.m. They arrived to see Endeavour so close to the sidewalk they felt they could almost touch it.

"It just passed over our head!" Navelle Cohen said, bouncing from the excitement and the cold. They persisted in finding the perfect shot, even though the married couple –- both musicians -- had a 9 a.m. gig later Sunday morning to play at a church.

Guy Quesada, 42, pressed his eyes behind a pair of binoculars and peeked at Endeavour's nose as it inched east along Martin Luther King Jr.  Boulevard toward Sixth Avenue, where he waited.

Quesada had already achieved his mission -- to get an up-close glimpse of the shuttle -- but he wanted more.

"I see it coming, it's about to cross that street. Oh gosh, what is that street?" Quesada said through a laugh as he pointed west toward Crenshaw Boulevard. "I'm so tired right now."

He started his stakeout at 4 p.m. Saturday at the California Science Center, but after hours of fruitless waiting he decided that if the shuttle wouldn't come to him, he'd go to it.

So, he made the hour-or-so long walk.

"We were hearing delay after delay after delay, so we figured let's go see what's up," Quesada said.

There was a perk to the late-night waiting: access.

Saturday evening he had to squeeze around hundreds of cramped bodies to get a decent view. But by the early morning hours of Sunday the crowds had cleared and he could get close.

"The actual wing was right over us. It creeped right over us," Quesada said, smiling as he recounted being so close he could read numbers of the shuttle's individual tiles.

By 5:15 a.m., the shuttle had just passed Martin Luther Jr. Boulevard and Welland Avenue-- just eight blocks away from the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. It had taken three hours and 45 minutes to cover half a mile.


Past 1:30 a.m., cheers as space shuttle moves -- then, a leak

Maintenance delays push Endeavour arrival to 7 a.m. at earliest

Space shuttle Endeavour won't arrive at museum until 6 a.m. at earliest

--- Joseph Serna, Frank Shyong, Andrew Khouri and Marisa Gerber in Leimert Park