The space shuttle Atlantis made a slow, solemn journey to retirement today, accompanied by astronauts and Nasa workers.
Atlantis emerged just before dawn local time from the massive Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and, riding on top of a 76-wheeled platform, began the 10-mile trek to the Kennedy Space Centre’s main tourist stop.
About 200 workers gathered in the early morning chill to see the spaceship out in the open for the final time. They were joined by the four astronauts who closed out the shuttle programme aboard Atlantis more than a year ago.
“My opinion is it looks better vertically,” said Christopher Ferguson, the commander of Atlantis’ final flight.
“It’s a short trip. It’s taking a day,” he added. “It travelled a lot faster in its former life. But that’s okay... it’s got a new role.”
Portions of Atlantis’ final launch countdown boomed over loudspeakers before the shuttle hit the road.
Employees gathered in front of a long white banner that read “We Made History”, and below that the single word “Atlantis”.
They followed the spaceship initially, then scattered as the shuttle transporter revved up to its maximum 2mph. The convoy included a dozen lorries and vans, their lights blinking.
Atlantis made its way down broad industrial avenues, most of them off-limits to the public. So the trek did not replicate the narrow, stop-and-go turns Endeavour encountered last month while navigating central Los Angeles.
The mastermind behind Atlantis’ slow march through Kennedy was sweating nonetheless.
“It’s only a priceless artefact driving 9.8 miles and it weighs 164,000 pounds,” said Tim Macy, director of project development and construction for Kennedy’s visitor complex operator, the company Delaware North.
“Other than that, no pressure at all,” Mr Macy said, laughing. “Only the eyes of the country and the world and everybody at Nasa is watching us.”
The roundabout loop took Atlantis past Kennedy’s headquarters building for a mid-morning ceremony that drew several thousand past and present employees, and their guests, as well as a few dozen astronauts. A high school colour guard and band led the way.
The mood was more upbeat than when the one-way road trip began four hours earlier and resembled a funeral procession. Nasa officials went out of their way to emphasise the space agency’s future.
“It’s an incredibly historic day,” said Nasa administrator Charles Bolden, a former skipper of Atlantis.
“But I don’t preside over an agency that’s in the history business. We’re in the business of creating the future.”
Mr Bolden proudly cited Nasa’s new target destinations for astronauts - an asteroid and Mars - and he hailed the successful start to commercial supply missions to the International Space Station.
The next stop for Atlantis, meanwhile, was a still-under-design industrial park that offered a few hours of public viewing this afternoon.
Crews removed 120 light poles, 23 traffic signals and 56 traffic signs in order for Atlantis to squeeze by. One high-voltage power line also had to come down. Staff trimmed back some scrub pines, but there was none of the widespread tree-axing that occurred in Los Angeles.
Tourists jammed the public portion of Atlantis’ route.
Patricia LeBlanc, visiting from Orlando with her daughter, said she misses the shuttle launches.
Thirteen-year-old Ashley Gest, waiting in line for astronaut autographs with her family, was excited to see Atlantis but expressed sadness, too.
The grand entrance into Atlantis’ new home, in the early evening, was expected to go just as smoothly. One complete wall of the exhibit hall was kept off, carport-style, so the shuttle could roll right in. Construction will begin on the missing wall early next week.
Once safely inside, Atlantis will be plastic-wrapped for protection until the building is completed. The grand opening is set for July 2013.