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Retired Space Shuttle Makes Final Voyage

Space shuttle Discovery flown over the Washington area, April 17, 2012

Space shuttle Discovery flown over the Washington area, April 17, 2012

NASA's retired space shuttle Discovery is one step closer to its final home, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Discovery took off after daybreak one last time, leaving its home of nearly three decades - NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

But instead of blasting off, it rode atop a special 747 jumbo jet that ferried it north. Discovery flew low over some of Washington's most famous sites, including the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.

The spectacle delighted onlookers.

Discovery's flight over Washington publicized its new home - the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

The orbiter landed for the last time at Dulles International Airport, just outside the nation's capital.

NASA and museum officials were there to welcome the shuttle.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver says Discovery has quite a legacy.

"She [Discovery] has had 39 missions, over 365 days in space, 5,830 orbits of the planet Earth and 148,221,675 miles [i.e., 238,539,663 kilometers] (in space)," said Garver.

Discovery is the first orbiter of the retired shuttle fleet to join a museum collection.

On April 19, it will be moved to its new home, the Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, near the airport.

Valerie Neal is the collection curator. She was well-accessorized with shuttle-shaped earrings and a scarf with a shuttle print.

"This is one of the best days of my life, and I think one of the best days in the life of our museum," she exclaimed. "This is the culmination of a vision that we've had for a long time and several years' worth of hard work planning for this day. And it's all just come off perfectly."

Discovery's retirement is bittersweet for some people who worked on the shuttle program, including John Schindler. "The mission is over as far as going back and forth to space. But now it has a new assignment -- to educate and inspire future generations of scientists and engineers," he explained.

After nearly three decades and 135 space missions, NASA retired the shuttle fleet last year to focus on building the next generation of spacecraft that can go beyond low earth orbit.

NASA now invests in commercial enterprises that are developing spacecraft to ferry cargo and crew to the International Space Station.

John Schindler works on such a program at Boeing. "You know, the people that I see on that program are just as excited and enthused," he said. "They have the passion about human spaceflight, just like we did on the shuttle program."

By year's end, NASA's shuttles will join museum collections in Washington, D.C., Florida, New York and California, where they will continue to amaze and inspire.

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