April 17th, 2012
01:10 PM ET

Space Shuttle Discovery arrives in Washington

Space Shuttle Discovery landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington Tuesday after a series of nostalgic fly-bys on the back of a NASA Boeing 747, bringing whoops of pride and tears to the eyes of space fans and astronauts alike.

The 747's flight crew popped a hatch atop the aircraft and waved an American flag as it taxied off the runway.

The flight - the last time Discovery would be aloft - took it from Florida's Kennedy Space Center to the Washington area, where it will spend retirement as a museum piece at an annex to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia, near Dulles.

The shuttle will be removed from the specially modified 747 and star as the guest of honor at a four-day celebration punctuated by a ceremony Thursday formally welcoming Discovery to the Smithsonian collection.

Space Shuttle Enterprise, which has been on display at the museum since 1985, will be moved to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York.

"It's a very emotional experience, and I'm sorry this nation is out of the space exploration business for a while," Discovery veteran astronaut Joseph Allen said.

As it left Florida at first light, the shuttle made a pass over launch pad 39A - the site of all the manned Apollo launches as well as the first 24 shuttle launches. The symbolic salute to the nation's space program was followed by a flight down the beach and over the space center's visitor complex before heading north.

Some families camped in the space center parking lot for a couple of hours to view the shuttle as it flew by. Cheers erupted when it did.

Over Washington, the shuttle circled the National Mall three times, prompting repeated cheers from onlookers, before heading to Dulles.

Crowds also watched the shuttle fly past the Pentagon, where service members from privates to admirals and generals poured outside to watch.

People snapped pictures, while drivers on nearby roads slowed to watch the spectacle and honk their horns in salute.

Discovery is the oldest of the three remaining orbiters from a shuttle era that officially began on April 12, 1981, with the launch of the shuttle Columbia.

Discovery - named after one of the ships used by British explorer James Cook when he traveled to Hawaii, Alaska and Canada in the 1770s - carried 252 people and the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit during its career.

It was also the first to return to space flight following the loss of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

NASA retired Discovery after it traveled 148 million miles.

Its last commander, Steve Lindsey, and five others who flew on mission 133 in February, 2011, came out to say goodbye.

"Bittersweet is an overused word, but it is sad," Lindsey said.

With every step toward retirement, the shuttle fleet becomes more a part of history. In 30 years of flying, there were grand accomplishments and heart-wrenching tragedies. A space flying machine with wings, it was like nothing ever built.

But dwelling in that past would be a mistake, Lindsey said.

"We've got to move on; we've got to make sure that spaceflight doesn't die in this nation," he said. "We still have (the) space station going, but if we don't get ourselves heavy lift, get going with exploration or part of what I'm working on - the commercial program - then we risk losing this as a nation, and I don't want to do that."

In some ways, the past is meeting the future. Just a few miles to the south at Cape Canaveral, Space X is in its final preparations to launch its Dragon spacecraft. It is a hugely crucial test scheduled for the end of April. Space X hopes to be the first commercial company to rendezvous and then berth with the International Space Station.

Next year, Space X plans to start ferrying cargo to the station and in four years, U.S. astronauts.

Alvin Drew, a mission specialist on Discovery, said these companies vying to pick up where the shuttle left off are taking a leap of faith.

"These guys who run the commercial companies will tell you with the money, they could have been there in 2015 if the money was there," Drew said. "You tie yourself to government funding, you are making a tough deal, because there's no guarantee the succeeding administrations or congresses are going to continue your funding."

Commercial companies say their new vehicles will be many times safer than the shuttles. It has to be that way now, Drew said.

"We had bigger budgets and a bigger tolerance for failure and loss of life back in the '60s and early '70s than we have in this particular generation," Drew said. "So the shuttle was built for that generation of explorers, and I'm not sure it fit well in our current society or current culture. The risks you would take for the shuttle, I think, are higher than most people are willing to accept in 2012."

The other two surviving shuttles are also destined for display.

Endeavour will head to the California Science Center in Los Angeles by the end of the year. Atlantis will take up permanent residence at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, a final exclamation point to the end of an era of space exploration.

CNN's Paul Courson contributed to this report.

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Filed under: On Earth
soundoff (379 Responses)
  1. HCG Drops Reviews

    Like it! Thanks, hcg.

    September 12, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
  2. kurageart,unconventional animation and digital art

    I am no longer sure the place you are getting your info, however great topic. I must spend a while studying more or understanding more. Thank you for wonderful info I used to be searching for this info for my mission.

    April 28, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  3. JonnyKosh

    There's some great pics of the flyby here – http://blog.floridaholidays.co.uk/final-shuttle-flight-marks-commercial-space-race – also interesting insights into the commercial space of nthe future

    April 19, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  4. peick

    148 million miles. How many oil changes is that?

    April 18, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  5. Bee

    Long Live Discovery!

    April 17, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  6. Enzo Alda

    She sure was a good ship ...

    April 17, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  7. l

    Good by America, hello hope and change.

    April 17, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  8. Leigh

    This was an historical moment in our nation's story. It should have been the FIRST story on every news platform. I wanted to show others the beautiful sight of the flight taking off, the fly bys and the landing and I had to search to find it. It should have been the first story!!!

    April 17, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  9. Greg

    And thus ends the space program, the era of American exceptionalism, the American Dream. We traded it in for an illegitimate north rate amongst illegal immigrants of 42% and one of African Americans that amounts to 52%, with over half of these uneducated dregs on society on some form of assistance, and less than 1% of their children *ever* getting out of the inner city cesspools they live in.

    April 17, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  10. David Moore

    I'm sorry this happen, the Orion spacecraft is "risk adverse" as Buzz Aldrin called it and I agree. At least the orbiters will have good homes as museaum artifacts.
    David Moore, Morro Bay , California

    April 17, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  11. Kailey

    It was amazing! Saw it live and up close!

    April 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  12. morpheus

    it is inevitable

    April 17, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  13. bf

    CCN Puppet of NEW WORLD ORDER, Council of Foreign Relations, the U.S.A Military establishment have back-enginered alien technological for decades, Rockefeller world bankers illuminati plans to use this to stage a alien invasion so to declare martial law and enslave us all.

    April 17, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  14. DrDov

    Is that Seamus Romney on top??

    April 17, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  15. Bee

    It was a great era, and we remember those who were lost. The future holds great promise, but we as a country should always remember all those who have gone before and made new exploration possible. Long live Discovery!

    April 17, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  16. Josh

    Did the 747/Shuttle take off from the Shuttle landing strip?

    April 17, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  17. Dr. Katherine McNeil

    My daughter and I stood out on 10th Street E as she left the Palmdale plan for her final journey to Edwards Air Force Base. My daughter was 2 1/2 years old and as she and I waved our little flags we stood in awe of what we were experiencing. She never lost that enthusiasm for the space shuttle and we would go out and would watch them make their journey from Palmdale to Edwards Air Force Base each time one was scheduled to make the move. Unfortunately, it was on her 5th birthday that the Challenger was lost and at the time she knew something very sad had happened. To watch the landing in Washington, D.C. brings me hope that one day I can hold her hand as an adult as well as my grandson and stand looking at this wonderful machine of discovery and talk about the days of old when the Space Shuttle was the grand dame of its day.

    April 17, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
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