WASHINGTON - The day the shuttle Discovery is formally retired by landing at Dulles ushers in both a conclusion to a significant era of U.S. manned space flight, as well as a hard look at the future of Americans in space.
Discovery's internment at Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. is bittersweet for space fans and advocates nationwide who see it as one of America's greatest innovations, which won't be succeeded in the immediate future by an active replacement.
"That's something that really sticks in everybody's paw down here at the Kennedy Space Center: retiring an operational spacecraft before there's something to take its place," says Bill Harwood, CBS News space consultant, who watched the shuttle take off from Cape Canaveral for one last time Tuesday morning bound for the Washington, D.C. area.
This time, a Boeing 747 replaced the traditional rocket boosters as the shuttle's propulsion.
If you missed it, relive the D.C. flyby through our user gallery and in the video below.
"It was the most capable spacecraft ever built," Harwood tells WTOP. "You could argue it cost too much, you could argue the goals that lead to it may not have been justified...but that doesn't take away from the majesty of the achievement. That was really something."
Congress chose to scrap the shuttle program for budget issues, turning instead to private contractors like Elon Musk's SpaceX to continue America's orbital and commercial space programs. NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. said last July the agency would realign to focus on deep space missions.
NASA astronaut Bill Readdy, who was assigned to the shuttle program from its "post-Challenger" era through present day, describes the transformative moment as "bittersweet."
"The space program has always defined the entrepreneurial nature in the United States," Readdy tells WTOP. "We're looking forward to exploring space once again."
Readdy points to the political climate in Spain at the time Queen Isabella commissioned Christopher Columbus to sail for the New World. A war with the Moors made purse strings tight, yet the country still found the means to pursue innovation and exploration.
"There's never a conflict-free era, there's never an era where there's a surplus of monies to go do anything," says Readdy. "It's a matter of vision, it's a matter of doing what you find important."
The space program has always defined "the entrepreneurial nature of the United States," he says, referencing the six astronauts currently in the International Space Station as proof the space program remains strong. The U.S. will rely on Russian spacecraft to transport American astronauts and supplies to that satellite.
"The Russians have been a very reliable partner in the space arena," says Readdy. "That's going to be an important stepping stone for exploration in the future."
"I know we're going to go beyond the international space station and continue to explore, back to the moon and beyond," he says.
Though NASA is reorganizing, the U.S. military retains a strong presence in space, Harwood says, providing an outlet for young people who dream of applying studies in engineering or science to a celestial profession.
But for the time being, Americans will have to wait for the launch of the next manned space craft.
"It's a tremendous vista to watch that thing take off and realize what it can do," says Harwood.
Check out this footage of one of the shuttle's three loops over D.C. with the help of its Boeing 747 chaperone:
and another from the Smithsonian Institution:
- Chief: NASA relevant for 50 more years; Kelly won't run (July 1, 2011)
- Space engineer: Mars landing, colonization possible (VIDEO) (Sept. 30, 2011)
Follow WTOP on Twitter.
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)