/ Robert Z. Pearlman
A Navy honor guard accepts the flags for all five of NASA's shuttles: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour at Johnson Space Center’s shuttle program celebration on Aug. 27.
updated 9/1/2011 7:07:28 PM ET 2011-09-01T23:07:28

NASA's space shuttle program came to its official end Wednesday, just over a month after the final shuttle mission landed on Earth.

Beginning Thursday, all on-going shuttle related work — which is mostly focused on preparing the three orbiters for their display at museums — will be led by the agency's Space Shuttle Transition and Retirement Office.

To mark the end of the program and to say thank you to its thousands of workers, many of whom are losing their jobs with the shuttle's retirement, NASA hosted employee gatherings at the centers that supported and oversaw the flyout of the shuttle. After similar celebrations at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, the last of these events took place Saturday at the "home" of the shuttle program, Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

"We're here to celebrate an incredible 30-year run," NASA Administrator and former shuttle astronaut Charles Bolden said, addressing the thousands of JSC workers and their families who came out for the "Salute Our Space Shuttle: Foundation for Our Future" celebration. "All of you need to leave here tonight with your chest stuck out as proud as you can be because we have done something that no one else was ever able to do and no one will ever do again."

In addition to Bolden, the event included tributes delivered both in-person and by video from space shuttle program managers, astronauts and celebrities. Representatives of the Houston Astros and Aeros sports teams, actor Seth Green, singer Jimmy Buffett, Sesame Street's Elmo and late night talk show host Jay Leno all offered their thanks for the shuttle.

"Thank you for your dedication, your inspiration and vision on the incredible space shuttle program," Leno said in a video recorded from the set of "The Tonight Show." "For over 30 years, you guys have amazed and educated, opened our eyes to the wonders of space travel and the benefits brought to our everyday lives."

Outgoing shuttle program manager John Shannon, who's now been assigned by Bolden to assess options for the next set of missions beyond Earth orbit, also addressed the shuttle workers — and their families — by video.

"I would like to take this moment to thank the team for all their hard work and dedication over 30 years that has led to a successful conclusion of the space shuttle program. The shuttle program has built the largest space station in history, has revolutionized science with the Hubble Space Telescope and has inspired a generation to dream of space," Shannon said.

"But I would like to especially thank the families of our workers. Your sacrifices have allowed us to be successful. This accomplishment is also a great success for you and thank you," he said.

Flying no more
NASA flew its final three space shuttle missions — one per orbiter remaining in the fleet — earlier this year.

Shuttle Discovery, bound next year for the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia, was retired first in March. Endeavour landed June 1 and is now being prepared for display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

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Atlantis flew the 135th and final shuttle mission, STS-135, last month. It will be exhibited near where it and all the other shuttles launched and most landed, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.

NASA's first two orbiters to fly, Columbia and Challenger, were lost with their crews to in-flight accidents in February 2003 and January 1986 respectively.

"We have to remember two groups of people who are very special to all of us: the STS-51L crew and STS-107 crew. We stand on their shoulders tonight as we celebrate," said Bolden.

To mark the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, Johnson Space Center paused during Saturday's event to retire the orbiters' flags, which were deployed outside the center's headquarters building whenever the shuttles were in orbit. Similar flags were flown and retired during ceremonies at Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center.

Ellen Ochoa, Johnson's deputy director and a four-time shuttle astronaut, led the flag retirement ceremony, which saw representatives from the shuttle program's primary contractors hand off each flag to a Navy honor guard from nearby Ellington Field.

Ochoa paid tribute to each orbiter in the order they first flew as their red, white and blue flags were retired:

  • Columbia: "From the day she first arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in March 1979 until the day we lost her over the skies of Texas, Columbia served as the vanguard for the space shuttle program, a beloved reminder of American ingenuity and the invincible human spirit."
  • Challenger: "The loss of Challenger and its crew in the piercing cold of that January morning could not and will never diminish the wonder of its brief history, instead reminding us how difficult and unforgiving human spaceflight is and can be and the fortitude of this nation to return to flight safer, wiser and more dedicated than ever."
  • Discovery: "The fleet leader in space shuttle program history, Discovery spent a full year in space over its 39 missions. Called upon to visit two space stations, the Hubble Space Telescope and to return Americans to space, Discovery served as the vehicle for some of the most daring missions in shuttle history."
  • Atlantis: "By the time it landed on July 21st to complete the space shuttle program's storied 30-year history, Atlantis orbited the Earth 200 times on its 33 missions and entered the record books as the first shuttle to dock with the Russian space station Mir and the last shuttle to undock from the International Space Station."
  • Endeavour: "Endeavour ended its career in the pre-dawn hours on June 1st, lifting the spirits of the nation and the world through its heroics and its contributions to furthering human exploration. During its time in orbit, Endeavour saved the Hubble Space Telescope on the first mission to service the iconic observatory and it also delivered the first U.S. element of the International Space Station to orbit to begin assembly of the complex that is now our national laboratory in space."

Johnson Space Center plans to exhibit the flags, although where has yet to be decided.

Five for Flying
NASA retired the space shuttle to devote its resources to sending astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, to an asteroid, back to the moon and eventually Mars.

In addition to developing a new multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) designed to take crews outward into the solar system, NASA is soliciting the launch services from four commercially designed spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

"With the end of the shuttle program, we bring to a close a remarkable chapter in America's history in space and usher in the next extraordinary moment in our nation's story of exploration," Johnson Space Center director and shuttle commander Michael Coats said before introducing the son of a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory astrophysicist for one last celebrity tribute.

Better known by his stage name "Five for Fighting," singer John Ondrasik played out the evening, performing solo numbers on guitar and piano including "Superman (It's Not Easy)," "100 Years," and "World," which astronauts used as a soundtrack for a video filmed aboard the International Space Station.

Visit collectSpace to view videos of celebrities and VIPs thanking NASA's shuttle team as played at Johnson Space Center's "Salute Our Space Shuttle: Foundation for Our Future" celebration.

Follow collectSpace on Facebook and Twitter @ collectSPACE and editor Robert Pearlman @ robertpearlman. Copyright 2011 All rights reserved.

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Timeline: Space shuttle timeline

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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