For five seconds Friday morning, the future of the U.S. space industry was reflected in the clear blue eyes of 6-year-old Liam Aldwinckle.
Liam, who's big into aeronautics, waited for more than an hour on the west sidewalk of the state Capitol to watch the last vestige of the U.S. space shuttle program sail through the skies.
His mother had taken the towheaded boy out of school to see the space shuttle Endeavour, mounted atop a jumbo jet, make its flyover above Sacramento. The fifth and last shuttle built by NASA was being hauled to its final destination, a Los Angeles museum. As the minutes ticked by, Liam wondered aloud, "What if this is a giant joke?"
Finally, at about 9:45 a.m., thousands of veteran and freshly minted space buffs tilted their heads in unison to the south, pointed between the palm trees and cheered.
Liam's eyes grew big as the Boeing 747 with its precious cargo whooshed into the blue rectangle of sky over Capitol Mall. His face softened into an awed grin.
"It was bigger than I thought," he breathed dreamily.
That was the reaction Donald James was hoping for. The NASA director of new ventures, based at Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale, helped coordinate the flyby of the Capitol in part to rev up young people's interest in aerospace.
"We have a bright future, and we need bright young people," James said. "We're looking at the future of the space program right here."
The flyover also honored Northern California aerospace workers who for generations helped to build and maintain rockets, shuttles and satellites, James said.
"A NASA shuttle has never been to Northern California, and will never again be in Northern California," he said. "This is historic."
Dianne Rider, standing on the steps of the Capitol, was one of the many baby boomers reminiscing about the heyday of NASA missions. As the first female machinist apprentice for a Redondo Beach aerospace firm in 1983, she was nostalgic for the state's bygone golden age of aerospace manufacturing.
"My father was in aerospace and three of my five brothers were in aerospace" Rider said. "It's part of my family history. Some of the parts I helped make are still in space, in satellites."
Onlookers crammed the steps of the Capitol, the park and the mall, weaving a tapestry of wheelchairs and strollers, dogs on leashes, serious camera lenses, toddlers on shoulders, families with lawn chairs, and bicyclists.
Throughout Sacramento, workers and residents took time out to scan the skies for Endeavour, gathering on bridges, overpasses, rooftops, balconies, sports fields and levees.
The event marked a hand-over of the reins of shuttle programs from government to privately financed projects, James said.
"It's time for commercial companies to take over shuttles, and let NASA get back in the business of more space exploration," James said.
NASA hopes to return to its former focus on long-range projects, such as human expeditions to asteroids and possibly Mars, he said.
Matt Sorgenfrei, a UC Davis graduate student in mechanical engineering, said NASA's future depends on youngsters entering science and math fields.
"NASA engineers are aging," he said. "There's a talent gap that needs to be filled. We need kids in the pipeline."
As a longtime family friend of James, Sorgenfrei grew up with the lore of space missions, and was finally getting his first glimpse of a shuttle at his mentor's side. Sorgenfrei hopes to work at Ames Research Center someday.
Students from Edward Harris Jr. Middle School in Elk Grove, who came to the Capitol to see the shuttle, were proof that the flyover was generating hype.
"I love space and learning about stars and planets," said seventh-grader Parneet Kaur, clad in a bright pink NASA T-shirt. "I want to work for NASA someday as an aerospace engineer."