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Discovery makes final flight amidst cheering crowds

Strapped to the back of modified Boeing 747, the famous spacecraft circled four times over the Washington Monument, the National Mall and Capitol Hill, before touching down at Dulles International Airport.

The space shuttle Discovery took off for its last journey from Kennedy Space Center early Tuesday morning for a low-altitude flyby to its final resting place at a museum.

Strapped to the back of modified Boeing 747, the famous spacecraft circled four times over the Washington Monument, the National Mall and Capitol Hill, before touching down at Dulles International Airport.

From there it will head to its final destination as an exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

Spectators gathered at the National Mall, parks, restaurants, office balconies and bridges to witness the spectacle cheered loudly.

Silver Spring retiree J.J. Morgan, 70, said,"It's a spectacular view to see the big shuttle on the back of a 747. The shuttle's pretty big itself, but to see it on the back of another plane - that's pretty amazing. I always wanted to get down to Florida to see one take off but never made it."

The most travelled shuttle
Discovery was Nasa's Orbiter Fleet leader having successfully travelled to space and back 39 times over 28 years.

The world’s most travelled shuttle, Discovery spent a cumulative 365 days orbiting Earth and flew nearly 149 million miles (241 million kilometers).

It was launched in 1984. With more flights into space than any other craft, Discovery spent a total of 365 days circling the Earth and carried 246 crew members to orbit.

The famous shuttle’s last mission to space was a 13-day trip to the International Space Station in February and March of last year.

Her long list of achievements include transporting the Hubble Space Telescope, carrying the first Russian cosmonaut to launch on a U.S. spaceship, performing the first assignment with the Russian space station Mir with the first female shuttle pilot in the cockpit.

Also returning Mercury astronaut John Glenn to orbit and restoring shuttle flights after the Challenger and Columbia tragedies can be added to Discovery’s many feats.

NASA shuttle program ends
Begun on April 12, 1981, NASA's space shuttle program launched a total of 135 flights to low Earth orbit through five shuttles: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour.

The program had its share of tragedies. On Jan. 28, 1986, seven astronauts abroad Challenger died after the shuttle blew up shortly after liftoff.

The program endured another disaster again on Feb. 1, 2003, when seven astronauts on Columbia perished as the shuttle disintegrated before landing.

Discovery is the first of three orbiters entering retirement. Atlantis will be sent to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex for public display and Endeavour will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

NASA has no plans for future manned space vehicles, so the US Astronauts may now have to go on Russian Soyuz capsules to reach the International Space Station.

Now the United States' objective is a bolder space exploration. The goals set forth by the Obama administration is to put man back on the moon after nearly 40 years and send astronauts on missions to an asteroid by 2025 and then Mars.