After three decades of space service, NASA’s oldest and most travelled shuttle, Discovery, began its new life as a museum relic with one final takeoff. Discovery departed Florida’s Kennedy Space Center at daybreak yesterday aboard a modified jumbo jet bound for Washington, where it will become a Smithsonian exhibit.
Nearly 2,000 people — former shuttle workers, VIPs, tourists and journalists — gathered along the old shuttle landing strip to see Discovery off. A cheer went up as the plane taxied down the runway and soared into a clear sky. The plane and shuttle headed south and made one last flight over the beaches of Cape Canaveral — thousands jammed the shore for a glimpse of Discovery — then returned to the space center in a final salute.
Cheers erupted once more as the pair came in low over the runway it had left 20 minutes earlier and finally turned toward the north. A similar flyover was planned over the monuments in the nation’s capital, later in the day. Discovery — the fleet leader with 39 orbital missions — is the first of the three retired space shuttles to head to a museum.
It will go on display at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, taking the place of the shuttle prototype Enterprise. The Enterprise will go to New York City. Endeavour will head to Los Angeles this fall. Atlantis will remain at Kennedy. For at least the next three to five years — until commercial passenger craft are available in the US — NASA astronauts will have to hitch multimillion-dollar rides on Russian Soyuz capsules to get to the International Space Station.
The veteran orbiter spent more than a year in space over the course of its 39 missions since 1984, more than any other vehicle to launch and return from Earth orbit.