Apr 19, 2012 1:24 PM
CHANTILLY, Va.(MSNBC) - While thousands cheered, the space shuttle Discovery was rolled to its new home in the Smithsonian on Thursday, going nose to nose with the prototype shuttle it's replacing.
NASA and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum kicked off a four-day celebration of at the museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center here with a gala that featured a red-clad phalanx of Marine Corps musicians and nearly as many blue-clad astronauts.
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The senior astronaut of the bunch wore a suit and tie, however: That was 90-year-old senator-astronaut John Glenn, who was the first American in orbit 50 years ago and a Discovery payload specialist in 1998. Other dignitaries included NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Eileen Collins, the first woman to serve as a space shuttle commander.
"This is one of the greatest gatherings of astronauts probably in the history of NASA," said Gen. J.R. "Jack" Dailey, the museum's director, whose voice quickly choked up with emotion.
The retirement of Discovery and NASA's two other working shuttles may mark the end of a 30-year chapter in American spaceflight, but not the end of the story. Bolden said "what we learned will be applied to the next generation of space transportation systems" - including spacecraft that, unlike the shuttle, will be able to travel beyond Earth orbit.
The administrator said the International Space Station would serve as a "stepping stone to the rest of the solar system," and he pointed out the shuttle fleet's indispensable role in constructing the orbital outpost.
Glenn reviewed Discovery's record as the world's most traveled space plane, and although he said the shuttle was "prematurely grounded," he said the craft had a long career ahead of it as an object of inspiration for future generations.
"Today Discovery takes on a new mission - less dynamic, perhaps, but nonetheless important," Glenn said.
The senator-astronaut then served as witness as Bolden, Dailey and Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough signed the papers formally transferring Discovery to the museum's care.
The stage was set for the ceremony earlier in the morning, when the prototype shuttle Enterprise was rolled outside from the place it has been held in the Udvar-Hazy Center since 1985. Meanwhile, Discovery was hoisted off the modified NASA 747 jet, which it rode piggyback on Tuesday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Dulles International Airport.
It was just a short three-mile tow from the Dulles runway to the Udvar-Hazy Center. Just as Thursday's ceremony began, Discovery was pulled along for the last few hundred yards, coming to rest just in front and to the side of Enterprise. Later in the day, Discovery was to be rolled into the museum's James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, occupying the spot where Enterprise once sat.
The ceremony drew thousands of onlookers to the Udvar-Hazy Center, including 9-year-old Aaron DiFranco of Laytonsville, Md. DiFranco's family took him to the final space shuttle launches last year - and on Thursday he wore his astronaut costume in Discovery's honor.
When asked whether he was more anxious about seeing the spacefliers or the spaceship, he didn't hesitate with his answer. "The shuttle!" he said.
Thursday's ceremony was just the opening splash for a "Welcome Discovery" festival at the center, featuring space-related activities, performances, appearances by astronauts, films and displays. Friday will be "Student Discovery Day" - and on Saturday and Sunday, the museum will be serving up a full schedule of activities for families.
Discovery's place in history
When NASA announced the shuttle fleet's retirement, the Smithsonian got first pick of the orbiters, and decided to go with Discovery.
"NASA and the Smithsonian signed an agreement in 1967 that has enabled the National Air and Space Museum to preserve and display the greatest icons of our nation's space history," Dailey explained in a statement. "At the Udvar-Hazy Center, Discovery will be seen by millions of people in the coming years, especially children, who will become the next generation of scientists, engineers, researchers and explorers."
Discovery was the first shuttle to be decommissioned, back in March 2011. The orbiter flew 39 missions, more than any other shuttle in history, logging 148,221,675 miles on its odometer during 365 days in outer space. Its achievements include deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, John Glenn's flight at the age of 77 (which made him the oldest person to fly in space), and the "return to flight" missions after the Challenger explosion and the Columbia disaster.
"Space shuttle Discovery is the star," Glenn said. "It has the most extensive record of all the shuttles."
Discovery's sister orbiters, Atlantis and Endeavour, will be headed to Florida's Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center and the California Science Center in Los Angeles, respectively.
The Enterprise is a special case: It was used as an aerodynamic test vehicle during the shuttle's development but never flew in space. Weather permitting, it will be loaded up on the modified 747 at Dulles, just as Discovery was in Florida, and flown to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport as early as next week.
From there, the Enterprise will ride a barge to its new home on the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, docked at Pier 86 on Manhattan's West Side.
Pictured: (1) The Enterprise space shuttle (L) and Discovery space shuttle (R) face each other during the Discovery transfer ceremony at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, in Chantilly, Virginia, USA, 19 April 2012. (2) Ashley Koen and Stephanie Harris wear hats modeled after the shuttle Discovery while standing in front of the prototype shuttle Enterprise, in advance of Thursday's ceremony at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.
Courtesy: Michael Reynolds / EPA