Image: Space shuttle Discovery, mounted atop a 747
NASA / Robert Markowitz
Space shuttle Discovery, mounted atop a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft flies over the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Tuesday, April 17, 2012, in Washington. NASA will transfer Discovery to the National Air and Space Museum to begin its new mission to commemorate past achievements in space and to educate and inspire future generations of explorers.
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updated 4/18/2012 2:20:39 PM ET 2012-04-18T18:20:39

NASA delivered the space shuttle Discovery to its new home in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, marking the true beginning of the end to the agency's venerable shuttle program. But more than 1,600 miles away, NASA's chief heralded the beginning of a new age of space exploration.

"Just because the shuttle is retired doesn't mean NASA is shuttered — far from it," NASA administrator Charles Bolden told the audience here at the 28th National Space Symposium. "I believe the best is yet to come. Our bigger dreams are just starting to come to fruition."

After 135 flights, the agency retired its space shuttle program to focus on the development of a new capsule and rocket for deep space exploration. The mothballed orbiters will now be placed on display at museums across the country.

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Discovery, the most-flown shuttle in NASA's fleet, was the first to be delivered its museum destination. The workhorse orbiter will now be placed on public display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.

Discovery was flown piggyback on a modified Boeing 747 jet Tuesday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Washington Dulles International Airport. [ Photos: Shuttle Discovery's Historic Delivery ]

"[T]his morning, we accomplished an incredible milestone in a series of milestones as we phase out the most incredible program, probably, in the history of human spaceflight," Bolden said.

The shuttle prototype vehicle, Enterprise, will be the next to travel to its new home. Enterprise was previously housed at the Udvar-Hazy Center, but it will now be moved to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York on April 23.

The shuttle Endeavour will travel to the California Science Center in Los Angeles later this year. Atlantis, the third remaining space-flown orbiter, will be placed on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex.

The handoff of Discovery, and the beginning of its new life on public display, represents a transfer of the space shuttle program from NASA to the American public and the rest of the world, Bolden said.

But the end of the shuttle program does not mean that NASA is slowing down, he added. Bolden listed the various robotic science missions that are still ongoing, including the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn, the planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at the Red Planet.

He also highlighted upcoming milestones, such as the Curiosity rover's scheduled landing on Mars in August, the Juno spacecraft's arrival at Jupiter in 2016, and the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope — a sophisticated observatory that is being billed as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope — in 2018.

The agency is also developing a new heavy-lift launch vehicle, called the Space Launch System, and a capsule, called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, that will be used for deep space exploration missions.

Bolden also discussed continuing efforts to help private companies develop a new fleet of spacecraft to ferry supplies — and one day, astronauts— to and from the International Space Station. On April 30, California-based SpaceX is slated to launch its unmanned Dragon capsule on a test flight to rendezvous and dock with the orbiting outpost.

If successful, SpaceX will be the first private company to accomplish the feat.

"This will be a historic milestone," Bolden said.

But the NASA chief also discussed the challenges facing the agency, including how to operate in an increasingly tight fiscal environment. In his fiscal year 2013 budget request, President Barack Obama set out $17.7 billion for NASA, with significant cuts to the agency's planetary science department. [ NASA's 2013 Budget: What Will It Buy? ]

"Some tough decisions had to be made, but I believe we have the right balance to accomplish great things," Bolden said. "Despite constrained economic times, we have made substantial choices — sustainable choices — to provide stability and continuity to existing priority programs, and set the pace for opening the next great chapter in exploration." 

Bolden expressed NASA's commitment to fostering American innovation and American ingenuity, and stressed that the agency's ambitious initiatives represent a new era of exploration for the country.

"It's about keeping the U.S. the world leader in space exploration, and showcasing our knack for solving problems and improving life here on Earth," he said.

"It's going to be an amazing ride. As Discovery lands at [the National Air and Space Museum], we see the fruits of the last time we embarked on a mission to do something no one else had done: to build a reusable space vehicle, and to demonstrate an expanding flexibility and capability to live and work in space, as we have been doing for almost 12 years now. As NASA transfers the shuttle orbiters to museums across the country, we also embark on an exciting new space exploration journey. The future is literally happening right now, and NASA intends to lead the march to it."

You can follow SPACE.com staff writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

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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