KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL -- The space shuttle Discovery, bolted to the back of a NASA 747 jumbo jet, departed the Kennedy Space Center for the last time today, putting on a final show for thousands of Space Coast residents and tourists who jammed area beaches just after sunrise for a low-altitude flyby.
"Oh my God," exclaimed Lynne Rover, who watched the shuttle pass overhead from a beach in Cape Canaveral. "I feel like part of America is dying. It really annoys me that we have to pay the Russians to bring our astronauts back and forth (from the space station). That, to me, is terrible.
"I just feel like our country's getting left behind. I know they had to cut the budget, but it's just a shame."
Discovery, NASA's oldest surviving orbiter, blasted off on its maiden voyage on August 30, 1984. It ultimately flew 39 missions, covering 148 million miles and 5,830 orbits, logging a cumulative 365 days in space, and carrying 246 crew members into orbit.
Discovery's final mission ended at the Kennedy Space Center on March 9, 2011. Its sister ships, Endeavour and Atlantis, completed their final flights a few months later, returning to Earth June 1 and July 21, respectively.
Since then, NASA and its prime contractor, United Space Alliance, have been preparing the shuttles for museum display, removing hazardous systems and materials, along with components that may be used in future spacecraft.
Discovery was the first to leave, bound for permanent display at the National Air & Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport near Washington. Before landing at Dulles just after 11 a.m. EDT (GMT-4), the 747 transport jet flew Discovery through the Washington area, making a low-altitude pass along the National Mall. An official arrival ceremony is planned for Thursday.
"I guess a chapter's closing," Steven Lindsey, commander of Discovery's final flight, said on the shuttle runway yesterday. "We were talking about it last night. We were calling it 'bittersweet,' or is it just bitter? Well, not bitter. But it's just sad to see it go."
Said Lindsey: "The good news is, it's going to a good home, and everybody's going to get to see Discovery for years and years and years in the future. But here, it's harder, because I know so many people have lost their jobs. It's the end of an era, and I worry about the future here. We're trying to do something about that and trying to bring some business back here, but it won't be like it was."
Crewmate Mike Barratt, looking at the orbiter on top of its 747 transport jet, said he was reminded of clipper ships, fast, graceful sailing ships that ultimately were replaced by more efficient vessels.
"I've used the analogy of clipper ships in the past, where you move to the next stage -- things that are supposedly better, faster. But you can't stop admiring the beauty of these guys. These birds are just incredibly beautiful, graceful spacecraft. And there will never be anything like it."
Crewmate Nicole Stott agreed, saying, "you can't help but be impressed."
"That's my hope now -- that, OK, if this is really happening, then I hope every time someone looks at that vehicle, they are impressed. Look what we can do, if we challenge ourselves."
Retired astronaut Mike Mullane flew aboard Discovery for its maiden flight in 1984. He returned to the Kennedy Space Center this week to witness its departure.
"I think NASA is doing the best with what they have, but again, I wish the political leadership would realize that this -- what you're seeing here, what NASA does -- is the crown jewel of American exceptionalism," he told CBS News. "What sends a better signal to the world as to what America is all about than putting men in space, on the moon, having a space station, having a couple of space telescopes, sending these probes to the far distant planets, landing on Mars?
"All of that stuff speaks to American exceptionalism. And now the funding isn't there to continue that. And that's sad."
In the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, the Bush administration decided to complete the space station and retire the shuttle, in theory freeing up money to pay for new rockets, capsules, and landers needed to establish Antarctica-style research stations on the moon.
But full funding never materialized, and the Obama administration, faced with soaring deficits in the aftermath of the 2008 housing market crash, decided to cancel the moon program, along with the rockets that were being developed to carry it out. Instead, NASA was ordered to fund development of lower-cost commercial manned spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
At the same time, Congress ordered NASA to build a new super rocket to propel the capsule originally designed for the moon program on missions to deep-space targets.
But funding shortfalls have delayed the commercial space initiative, and operational flights of new American spacecraft are not expected before 2017. In the meantime, NASA is paying the Russians more than $60 million a seat to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.
"I think there is a significant population in this country that is very disappointed and saddened by the fact that there isn't a robust program as there has been in the past," Mullane said on the shuttle runway. "Like I said, it's an example of the crown jewel of American exceptionalism. And it's now going to be very dim; it's not going to glow like it did in the past, and that does hurt."
The shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to depart Kennedy in September, bound for the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The Atlantis will remain at NASA's Florida launch site, on display at the Kennedy Space Center visitor's complex. Atlantis will be moved to its new home late this year.