Space shuttle Discovery's planned last trip to space started Monday the same way that the previous 38 did -- with a 1-mile-per-hour crawl from NASA's giant assembly building to her seaside launch pad.
It was just after 8 p.m. when the shuttle's crawler lurched from the Vehicle Assembly Building, the orbiter's white skin gleaming under the glare of bright spotlights. As the 180-foot-tall stack rolled by, dozens of NASA workers and their families stood by to bid a final salute to America's most experienced spaceship.
It will be more than a month before six astronauts ride Discovery into space on what will likely be the second to last shuttle flight, but Monday was the last time that many of the engineers, technicians, and other workers got a chance to see her up close.
The assembled KSC workers braved an army of mosquitoes and lined the 'crawlerway' leading out to the launch pad to see Discovery make the slow trek past. Cheers went up from the crowd as the platform ground its way down the gravel path, churning and humming as it went.
Space shuttle Endeavour is currently scheduled to make the last flight of the program in February. NASA hopes to add one more flight -- probably using Atlantis -- next summer, but the agency is awaiting word from Congress regarding funding for the mission.
The uncertainty surrounding that extra flight is part of the debate over what NASA should do next. The aging orbiter fleet -- fleet-leader Discovery turned 26 this year -- is being retired due to a presidential directive, but Congress and the White House have disagreed over how much of NASA's current mission should be shouldered by private industry, and where future flights should go.
Following the STS-133 mission, Discovery, like her sister ships, will be converted into a display piece for a museum. NASA has made no official announcement, but it has been widely reported that Discovery will be heading to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. for permanent exhibition.
It's not clear yet where the other orbiters will end up. NASA is currently evaluating proposals from museums around the country.
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