Today NASA and Smithsonian officials gathered at the Air and Space Museum annex to welcome the iconic space shuttle into the museum's permanent collection. Accompanied by astronauts and shuttle service workers, Discovery rolled down a runway to meet nose-to-nose with Enterprise, the test orbiter that until this morning was housed in the museum. (See "Space Shuttle Discovery Arrives to Take 'Place of Honor.'")
"The space shuttles showed us that Earth orbit could be an extension of our human biosphere, a place where we could live and work," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden—a former astronaut who flew twice aboard Discovery—told the thousands gathered for the welcome ceremony.
"Today we turn Discovery over to the Smithsonian with great expectations that, as we have always done, NASA will continue to inspire the next generation to explore. This vehicle will be a ... tangible example that our dreams of exploration ... are always within our grasp if we reach for them."
Reflected in a rain-soaked runway at Dulles on Wednesday, Discovery waits to be "demated" from the special 747 that carried the spacecraft from Florida to Virginia. (Watch video of Discovery's flight over D.C.)
The shuttles were designed to land like gliders and so have no engines for flight within Earth's atmosphere. To travel between states, each orbiter needed to be carried "piggyback" on a 747, bolted to the jumbo jet using the same attachments that joined the shuttle to its huge external fuel tank for a launch.
"The shuttles were extraordinary vehicles, and throughout their lives we constantly learned from them and refined them," Bolden said during the Thursday ceremony. "What we learned will now be applied to the next generation of spaceflight systems."
Discovery hangs suspended in a sling as two cranes help lift the shuttle off the 747 on Thursday.
Often called the workhorse of the shuttle fleet, Discovery completed 39 missions, spent 365 days in space, orbited Earth 5,830 times, and traveled a total of 148,221,675 miles (238,539,663 kilometers). Among its many career highlights, Discovery deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, carried the first female shuttle pilot, and assisted with the construction of the International Space Station (ISS).
"Without the shuttles, there would be no ISS," Bolden said. "Now we have a unique orbiting laboratory that will be a stepping-stone to the rest of the solar system."
Photograph courtesy Bill Ingalls, NASA
Meeting Face to Face
The space shuttle Enterprise (left) sits nose-to-nose with Discovery on the grounds of the Udvar-Hazy Center Thursday morning. (Take an Air and Space Museum quiz.)
Throngs of reporters, astronauts, luminaries, shuttle engineers, and space fans from around the country cheered as Discovery rolled up to meet Enterprise accompanied by patriotic music from the U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps.
"For every major milestone in space history, Americans have participated in the excitement and pride of the occasion, and today is no exception," National Air and Space Museum Director J.R. "Jack" Dailey said during the ceremony.
"If your blood's not moving now, let me know and I'll send a gurney for you."
Astronauts in blue flight suits escort Discovery as the shuttle is rolled toward the Udvar-Hazy Center on Thursday morning. In all, 15 shuttle commanders who flew on board Discovery accompanied the orbiter to the museum, a turnout that NASA Administrator Bolden called "one of the greatest gatherings of astronauts probably in the history of NASA."
Former U.S. Senator John Glenn was also on the scene to serve as witness to the formal transfer of Discovery from NASA to the Smithsonian. In addition to being the first U.S. astronaut to orbit Earth, Glenn made history aboard Discovery in 1998 when he became the oldest person to fly in space at the age of 77.
"We must count ourselves among the most fortunate people ... to be living at a time when we finally realized the ages-old dream to go 'up there,'" Glenn said during the ceremony.
"The unfortunate decision to terminate the shuttle program, in my view, prematurely grounded the fleet. But today Discovery takes on a new mission—less dynamic perhaps—but nonetheless important. It will be on display as a testament ... and a symbol of our nation."