Space shuttle Discovery completes final mission: to Smithsonian

The oldest space shuttle in NASA’s fleet is officially retired today, and has made its way to its permanent home at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum annex in Virginia.

It is a sad and nostalgic moment for space buffs: the leader of the remaining space shuttle fleet, Discovery, piggybacked a ride on a NASA transport jet to its permanent exhibit space at the Smithsonian.

Discovery made its last mission in March 2011, marking the closure of NASA’s space shuttle program. NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles after the completion of the $100 billion International Space Station and will begin work on a new generation of space vehicles. These ships will be able to dock the space station and propel astronauts beyond the 240-mile-high orbit.

"It's sad to see this happening," said NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, who was a member of Discovery's final crew. "But you look at it and you just can't help but be impressed by it. That's my hope now, that every time someone looks at that vehicle they are impressed, that they feel that this is what we can do when we challenge ourselves."

"It's a very emotional, poignant, bittersweet moment," said former astronaut Mike Mullane, a veteran of three space shuttle missions. "When it's all happening you think, ‘This will never end,' but we all move on."

Discovery made its first flight in August 1984 and was, at the time, the youngest of the first three shuttle siblings. Tragically, both Columbia and Challenger, the elder shuttles, were lost in accidents. Challenger broke up soon after take-off in 1986, and Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003. Both accidents were caused by stress hazards associated with the enormously complicated task of launching shuttles from the ground.

Remaining sister ships Endeavour and Atlantis will go on exhibit at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, respectively, later this year.

"We need to preserve our history for future generations and send these off to museums to remember what we did," said former astronaut Steven Lindsey, the commander of the last Discovery crew.

Although the ending of the space shuttle program has been met with almost unmitigated nostalgia in the press, it is being celebrated by at least some space exploration realists, who have criticized the program’s costs and unreliability for years. They have claimed that the program has failed to achieve its promised cost and utility goals, as well as design, cost, management, and safety issues. The Space Shuttle program has also been criticized for taking money away from unmanned but ultimately more exciting space exploration projects.

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