CHANTILLY, Va. — The space shuttle Discovery was rolled into its new home in the Smithsonian on Thursday, completing its transformation from spaceship to museum exhibit.
A low-slung tow truck pulled the 83-ton orbiter into position inside its hangar at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center here, taking care to angle the tail through a specially cut notch in the hangar's door and avoid hitting the satellites hung from the ceiling.
When the shuttle finally settled into position, cheers went up from scores of museumgoers who watched the operation.
Discovery replaces the prototype shuttle Enterprise, which has been in the Smithsonian's custody since 1985 and was on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center since its opening in 2003. Discovery will be displayed exactly as Enterprise was — with the exception that Discovery's scarred and blemished exterior has been left pretty much as it was when it returned from its last spaceflight in March 2011.
"It's got a kind of grit to the story," said the Smithsonian Institution's secretary, Wayne Clough.
Past and future of spaceflight
The move-in operation came hours after a ceremony marking the shuttle's handover from NASA to the Smithsonian. Dignitaries hailed the past and future of American spaceflight while Discovery and Enterprise sat nose-to-nose as a backdrop.
More than two dozen of the astronauts who flew on Discovery attended the ceremony — including NASA Administrator Charles Bolden; NASA's first woman shuttle commander, Eileen Collins; and retired senator-astronaut John Glenn, who was the first American in orbit 50 years ago and a Discovery payload specialist in 1998.
"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.
"Today, while we look back at Discovery's amazing legacy, I also want to look forward to what she and the shuttle fleet helped to make possible," Bolden told the crowd. "As NASA transfers the shuttle orbiters to museums across the country, we are embarked on an exciting new space exploration journey."
He referred to NASA's plans to develop a new heavy-lift rocket and spaceship that could take astronauts beyond Earth orbit, to near-Earth asteroids and eventually Mars — places where the space shuttles could not possibly go. Bolden also touted NASA's partnerships with commercial space companies to send cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station, which could not have been built without the space shuttles.
"What we learned [through the shuttle program] will be applied to the next generation of space transportation systems," Bolden said.
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 a source 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 a witness as Bolden, Dailey and Clough signed papers formally transferring Discovery to the museum's care.
The stage was set for the ceremony earlier in the morning, when Enterprise was rolled outside from the place it had held in the Udvar-Hazy Center's James S. McDonnell Space Hangar. Meanwhile, Discovery was hoisted off a 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 museum. 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.
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 astronauts or the spaceship in which they flew, he didn't hesitate with his answer. "The shuttle!" he said.
Thursday's events were 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, after flying 39 missions, more than any other single manned spacecraft in history. It logged 148,221,675 miles and 5,830 orbits of Earth during 365 days in outer space. Discovery's achievements include the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, 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."
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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, Enterprise 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 Monday.
Eventually, the Enterprise will be placed on a barge for a ride to its new home on the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, docked at Pier 86 on Manhattan's West Side.
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