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 |
  18. kevin

    I missed the flybys downtown by about 30 minutes. I didn't even know they were going to do those. NOOOOOO!!!!!! No pre-announcement or anything?

    April 17, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Bee

      It was announced yesterday and instructions were given about best viewing sites.

      April 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • SirDaBasher

      That was so cute , the piggy back ride

      April 17, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
  19. erich2112x

    Will we be able to sit in it over at the visitors complex?

    April 17, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • avoiceinmyhead

      No. No touchy!

      April 17, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  20. nonnews

    Welcome home old girl.

    April 17, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Ryan

      I like the fact they did not restore the outside of the aircraft, it shows just how many miles she had flown, and all that she took on leaving and re-entering the atmosphere.

      April 17, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  21. Victor Martin

    While its sad to see the end of an era, the truth is that manned spaceflight is astronomically(no pun intended) expensive, highly risky and for the most part unnecessary. It costs roughly $10,000 per pound to put something into orbit. Sending robots instead of people not only reduces risk, it saves incredible amounts of money because manned flight requires air, food, water, etc and needs to be insulated from space/radiation.

    While robots aren't nearly as glamorous as astronauts, it simply makes a lot more sense economically. Any future manned exploration will undoubtedly need to be international effort, because it simply isn't feasible for a single nation to send people any further than the moon.

    If we aren't willing/going to spend more money on NASA, I'd rather they focused their very limited funds on more tangible efforts such as robotic exploration of the outer solar system or development of a space elevator, than continue sending people into low earth orbit.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • John Burch

      Space elevators are not as simple as you think. Even going vertically @ 100mph (very unlikely) you will spend 2 weeks in the Van Allen belts, Certain death for any passengers even if the technology worrked

      April 17, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
      • Victor Martin

        First things first, develop the tether. And then if passenger travel can't be made sufficiently safe with shielding, which isn't clear, it would still be a much cheaper way to send heavy freight into orbit which would allow the construction of larger, more complicated structures/ships in space. But I think once we get to the point where we can develop sufficiently long and pure nano tubes, shielding the capsule to protect passengers won't be overly difficult. Even important cargo, such as food and water can be used as effective radiation shielding.

        April 17, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • EMM

      I'd rather they spent every penny of my tax dollar on missions to the Moon and Mars than on the current pork-barrel projects or needless wars to obtain outmoded fuels. The human race needs to get off this planet, needs its explorers and needs to expand to settlements on other planets. The money spent is an investment in the future, not a pointless dead end like Iraq and Afghanistan.

      April 17, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
      • Victor Martin

        I agree with changing our countries spending priorities, but this is the world we live in, and judging by the uselessness of congress nothing will be changing soon. But sending people to Mars will cost tens of billions of dollars. And when they get there, there is no indication they will find anything more than lifeless rocks. So while it would be great to be able to say "been there, done that", there isn't much tangible return on that investment.

        So why not send robots deeper into space to see things that really could be different from what we're used to seeing in this corner of the solar system and could potentially open up new avenues of research. Or on making space a profitable enterprise, because if we really want to become a space-fairing civilization in the future, its going to have to make economic sense to do so.

        April 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Kevin

      The shuttle is gone but what about an "atta boy" to that Boeing 747, another real marvel of american engineering.

      April 17, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
      • Joi Gibson


        So true. I have always been fascinated at how they put the shuttle atop a 747 and then they both fly away into the wild blue yonder. It is a sight to behold.

        April 17, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  22. Peter Grenader

    Cool vid, considering the entire US space program is a holographic deception that actually never occurred. Whoops... gotta go... got Bigfoot on the phone.

    just kiddin'......

    April 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  23. Gary

    Watched it land. It was a very proud, neat, teary moment. Sad to see that its flying days have ended.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  24. jem

    I don't think that anymore, having read in "Space Chronicles" (Norton), a recently published collection of articles by astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson, that only 4% of the U.S. budget during the 1960s went toward meeting President John F. Kennedy's goal of landing men on the moon before 1970. He also writes that even with the shuttle program in place, along with all those satellite repair missions, the $100 million operating budget for NASA represents six years of the agency's total funding and that said funding amounts to "one half of one percent of [a U.S. citizen's] tax bill."

    April 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Josh

      "that only 4% of the U.S. budget"

      That's a lot of money. Almost as much as Congress spends on its afternoon pastry.

      April 17, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  25. ADIFF

    Poignant reminder of the days when the United States used to have a Space Program..... Not a lot of credit to the current administration that they've let that disappear...but even less to the Congress for frittering away the legacy and the least to NASA and its smarmy 'popularity contest' Uncle Sugar suck up approach to everything.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • RonPaul4prez

      @ADIFF, you may want to check your facts. The current administration didn't bring about the demise of our space nation, that was piggy backed on GWB's term. He announced the end of the shuttle program, and set an extremely loose moon mission in its place that was plagued with budget overrun's and feasibility issues(it was also practically the same thing we had done in the 1960's... no real innovation), so it was scrapped by the current admin. Fact is, if a sustainable model for the future was put in place, it would have still been going.

      April 17, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
      • Frangible

        I like how going to the moon now is something unscientific that man cannot achieve.

        April 17, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
      • ADIFF

        Deserved or not by the rule they get all the blame. Sorry, but that's the way it works. Too bad. (PS they deserve it, for what it's worth, regardless others having done their part too.)

        April 18, 2012 at 3:33 am |
    • NewMexico720

      You're a genuine stupid person. NASA is alive and well you moron. Come to New Mexico and see how active NASA is here as well as in California. Just cause the Shuttle is not in Florida anymore doesn't mean that NASA is all gone. You're such a loser. OBAMA 2012.

      April 17, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
      • ADIFF

        If you weren't a total loser yourself you wouldn't be buried in that 3rd World trash heap called Las Cruces....and stranded at WSTF.

        NASA has always been part of the problem, not part of the solution.


        April 18, 2012 at 3:37 am |
  26. Bill

    Are you kidding me!!! A 45 minute fly over for show, as huge waste of tax payers dollars. It is bad enough how many people lost ther jobs but come on, a waste of fuel and cash. Again government wasting my dollars!!!!!

    April 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Busted

      Take your pills

      April 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Erik

      You're an i d i o t bill. They are building up publicity for the shuttle exhibit at the Smithsonian. This will bring an influx of tourists to town. Do you know how many people in this country were glued to their TV? or left the house to see the flight? Think of all the television views, advertising, money spent on Gas, food, nearby hotels? If anything, this stimulated the economy. You sir are a waste of Tax payer dollars.

      April 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Mark

      Small minded sentiments. It was a great way to remind the American people of our accomplishments and to always shoot for the moon.

      April 17, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Javier

      SETTLE DOWN FRANCIS...........

      April 17, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  27. ADIFF


    April 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • DanR.

      Good. Now nobody can see Uranus. I was tired of seeing it.

      April 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  28. Pete

    I spent many happy hours training on and in Discovery. It is and was a great machine. NASA started and stopped three Shuttle replacement programs and spent billions in the process. Too much oversight from congress. Hope the commerical space people are successful where the NASA civil service and contractors where not. The spinoff benefits of the Shuttle program exceeded the high costs. You can't cry about the end of the program and then say you want less government spending. Ask why one of the three replacement programs didn't produce a flight vehicle.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  29. jj

    To the poster who blamed Obama for defunding NASA, you can also blame Nixon, who broke up many programs and many engineering teams. Reagan did the same. They all did it, when the country needed money. Meanwhile, the military is doing fine...

    April 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Andy

      The Marine Corps is running birds that have been in the inventory since the 60s.... Running Amphibious Assault Vehicles from the same era... Oh yea, I forgot.... that's the MARINES... Anything that can "Escape Velocity" and essentially travel at roughly 25,000mph is something awe inspiring.

      April 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
      • midranger

        Ooh Rah!!!!!

        April 17, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  30. Sostooooopid

    Thats how baby planes are made.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
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