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Marking the end of a chapter of space exploration

Apr 17, 2012 6:14pm
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(NECN: Greg Wayland) - A moment in American history played itself out in the skies over the East Coast on Tuesday as the space shuttle Discovery took a piggy-back flight on top of a Boeing 747.

The shuttle made the trip from Cape Canaveral, Fla. to Washington-Dulles International Airport.

Along the way, adoring crowds on Florida beaches and along the route looked up to catch a glimpse.

The shuttle was heading to a final resting place in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, marking the end of NASA’s shuttle program. Discovery will be towed to its museum home on Thursday.

It was a poignant sight as the shuttle Discovery was perched atop a jumbo jet passing over the nation's capital on its final flight.

MIT Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Jeff Hoffman donned a bright red T-shirt worn by the 35 original shuttle astronauts - seeing as he was one of them.

TFNG - as the shirt reads - stands for "Thirty-five New Guys," and they even had a slogan: "We Deliver."

"Actually, on our 30th anniversary, we printed this and we said, 'We delivered,'" said Hoffman.

He said the shuttle program amassed enormous space knowledge, but it had run its course.

"Had we continued to fly the shuttle, that would preclude any development of new spacecraft," said Hoffman. "And, frankly, I'd like to see NASA get back in the exploration business. Let's go beyond Earth's orbit."

That's fine, said Boston University scientist Farouk El-Baz, but not quite all of it.

"I think it is a very sad moment for the space program because it seems that we have just given up on space research and space missions as the United States of America," said El-Baz.

El-Baz worked with NASA on the Apollo program. The problem, he said, is that the shuttle was originally conceived as a space transportation system.

"What we needed was not a space transportation system but a better launch facility and that can be improved all the time," said El-Baz. "Because with the shuttle, we were stuck for 30 years with exactly the same launch vehicle and the same way of putting things into space, meaning no development, no new ideas, no initiatives."

For his part, Hoffman sees promise in private sector space operations.

"That's where the real hope for growth and economic development comes, and I think there's a lot of possibilities," said Hoffman. "It could be a very exciting decade ahead of us."
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