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Image: Space Shuttle
Kim Shiflett  /  AP
Workers attach the space shuttle Discovery to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft in the Mate-Demate Device at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sunday. Discovery will be transported to the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia on Tuesday.
By Editor, CollectSpace
updated 4/16/2012 7:36:21 PM ET 2012-04-16T23:36:21

NASA mounted the space shuttle Discovery on a jumbo jet on Sunday in preparation for the retired orbiter's delivery to the Smithsonian. The paired air- and spacecraft are expected to fly out of Florida for Virginia on Tuesday morning, weather permitting.

Discovery's mating to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, or SCA, NASA's modified Boeing 747 jetliner, came a day later than the space agency had planned. On Saturday, wind gusts at the Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility set the 167,000-pound (75,300-kilogram) Discovery swaying under its lift sling, posing a risk that it could impact the Mate-Demate Device, the gantrylike steel structure used to hoist the shuttle onto the jetliner.

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Workers reconvened at 5 a.m. ET Sunday to finish retracting the shuttle's landing gear. They raised the orbiter 60 feet (18 meters) off the ground so that the carrier aircraft could be positioned underneath. Discovery was then lowered onto the jumbo jet's three protruding attach points to achieve a "soft" mating.

Work continued throughout the day Sunday to secure, or "hard-mate," Discovery to the 747 before removing the hoist sling and backing the paired vehicles out of the MDD on Monday morning. [How Space Shuttles Fly on 747 Jets (Photos)]

Emotional ending
"Assuming the weather is good, we'll back out [of the Mate-Demate Device] in the morning. That will give a whole day of opportunity for the media, the public and for our employees to come out and get a good view of Discovery's last time on top of a 747 here at Kennedy Space Center," said Stephanie Stilson, flow director for the transition and retirement for the space shuttle orbiters. [Gallery: Discovery Mated to Jumbo Jet]

Among the space program workers expected to come out and view Discovery on Monday are the members of its 39th and final spaceflight, the six astronauts who flew the STS-133 mission in March 2011.

According to Stilson, who also led the ground processing for Discovery's last 11 missions, seeing the shuttle readied for one last ferry flight was eliciting mixed feelings.

"It's hard not to be happy, because we have achieved another one of our goals," Stilson told CollectSpace.com. "That is how we look at things. We have a job to do, and that is to get Discovery to the Smithsonian. So this is the next step to get there. So we're very happy because everything has gone well to get to this point.

Follow msnbc.com's Science Editor Alan Boyle on Twitter as he covers the Discovery send-off live Tuesday.

"But then, when I start to think about the fact that this is last time to do this with Discovery, it is sad," she continued. "It is not something that we want to have as a last opportunity. But that's part of the job, that is where we are with the program and the way things are going.

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"So I'm just going to enjoy it, be happy and allow myself to really see the team at their best. Even if this is one of the last times we do it, at least they're doing it to the best of their ability, very professional, very dedicated, and who can't be happy about that? It's a great experience," Stilson said.

Final ferry flight
Discovery's mating with the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft marked a final reunion for the space shuttle and jumbo jet. The same aircraft was used to first deliver Discovery to the Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 9, 1983.

In the three decades since, Discovery was paired with this particular Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, NASA 905, for 14 out of its 18 ferry flights.

"This is something we have done many times before," said Stilson. "We have the same exact Mate-Demate Device out in California at the Dryden Flight Research Center, so if we landed out west, we would go through the same process to get the orbiter that landed out there back home to Kennedy. And then, when we used to do maintenance periods out in California, we would load up from here [in Florida] and then ferry out to Palmdale."

Two large cranes will take the place of the Mate-Demate Device when the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft arrives with Discovery at Washington Dulles International Airport on Tuesday.

After a day spent off-loading the orbiter, NASA and the Smithsonian will hold an arrival ceremony on Thursday when Discovery will be rolled over to the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located adjacent to the airport in Chantilly, Va.

Visit shuttles.collectspace.com  for continuing coverage of the delivery and display of NASA's retired space shuttles.

Follow CollectSpace on Facebook and Twitter @collectSPACE, and editor Robert Pearlman @robertpearlman. Copyright 2012 CollectSpace.com. All rights reserved.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Timeline: Space shuttle timeline

Photos: Space shuttle Discovery highlights

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  1. The space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center on its maiden trip into space, Aug. 30, 1984. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Mission specialist Richard M. Mullane shaves on board the shuttle Discovery on its maiden voyage STS-41D, on Sept. 1, 1984. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Discovery climbs into orbit after launch on July 26, 2005, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The seven-person international crew departed for a 12-day mission to the International Space Station. (Bob Pearson / AFP / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. First lady Laura Bush applauds during the liftoff of Discovery on July 26, 2005, in the stands at the Kennedy Space Center's Banana Creek viewing site in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, right, and Deputy Associate Administrator Michael Kostelnik, left, watch the Discovery launch from the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 26, 2005. (Bill Ingalls / AFP / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Tourists cheer at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at the sight of the space shuttle Discovery lifting off on Tuesday, July 26, 2005. (Scott Audette / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Astronaut Stephen Robinson, anchored to a foot restraint on the International Space Station's Canadarm2, participates in the mission's third spacewalk on Aug. 3, 2005. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. NASA employee Melinda Smith watches from Cape Canaveral, Fla., as the Discovery touches down at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Aug. 9, 2005. Unfavorable weather conditions in Florida caused NASA to switch landing sites to the base. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Chigasaki residents celebrate the U.S. space shuttle Discovery's safe return to Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert on Aug. 9, 2005, at Hamasuka Junior High School in Chigasaki, west of Tokyo. Chigasaki is the hometown of Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, one of seven crew members. (Koji Sasahara / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The crew of mission STS-114 -- mission specialist Stephen Robinson, commander Eileen Collins, mission specialists Andrew Thomas, Wendy Lawrence, Soichi Noguchi and Charles Camarda, and pilot James Kelly -- gather in front of Discovery after their landing on Aug. 9, 2005, at Edwards Air Force Base in California. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Discovery's nose landing gear was photographed by the crew on the International Space Station on July 28, 2005, as it did a pitch maneuver for tile inspection before docking. The crew of Discovery moved onboard the space station after carrying out new shuttle damage checks as ordered by NASA after a suspension of flights over safety concerns. NASA halted the program again after Discovery's return because of debris that fell off during its launch. (Nasa Photo / AFP / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The Discovery hitches a ride from California to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a special 747 carrier aircraft on Aug. 19, 2005. The shuttle landed in California on Aug. 9 as weather conditions prevented it from landing at Cape Canaveral, Fla., as originally planned. Discovery's mission was the first flight for the shuttle since Columbia broke upon re-entry in February 2003. (Lori Losey / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Astronaut Piers J. Sellers, STS-121 mission specialist, wears a training version of the Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit while participating in a simulation at Johnson Space Center. The RMS has a 50-foot boom extension, called the Orbiter Boom Sensor System, attached. It would be used to reach beneath the orbiter to access tiles. Lora Bailey, right, manager of JSC Engineering Tile Repair, assisted Sellers. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Workers observe the Discovery before it begins its six-hour trek from the vehicle assembly building to Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 19, 2006. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. In the White Room on Launch Pad 39B, STS-121 mission specialist Thomas Reiter of Germany, representing the European Space Agency, gets final adjustments made to his launch suit before entering Discovery at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on June 15, 2006. (NASA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Mission specialists Michael Fossum and Thomas Reiter; pilot Mark Kelly' commander Steven Lindsey; and mission specialists Lisa Nowak, Stephanie Wilson and Piers Sellers conclude emergency egress practice on June 15, 2006. This was during Terminal Countdown Demonstration Tests, a launch dress rehearsal that occurs before each shuttle mission. (NASA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Astronauts Thomas Reiter of Germany and Piers J. Sellers and Stephanie D. Wison of the U.S., all STS-121 mission specialists, train in advance of their launch on July 1, 2006. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham listens as John Shannon, NASA's deputy space shuttle program manager, points to a location on a model of the external fuel tank where a piece of foam insulation broke away from Discovery. The mishap was explained during a news conference on July 3, 2006, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The Discovery lifts off on another mission from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on July 4, 2006. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Self-portrait, taken by astronaut Michael Fossum on July 8, 2006, during a spacewalk while the Discovery orbiter was docked with the International Space Station. Turning his camera to snap a picture of his own helmet visor, he also recorded the reflection of his fellow mission specialist, Piers J. Sellers, near center of picture, and one of the space station's gold-tinted solar power arrays arcing across the top. The horizon of Earth is in background. (Michael Fossum / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The nose of Discovery and part of the underside is seen over Earth on July 6, 2006. NASA engineers examined detailed pictures of the space shuttle's heat shield a day before two astronauts were to embark on the most disorienting task of their 13-day mission: a wobbly spacewalk. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The sun illuminates the Earth's atmosphere during a sunrise, seen from the Discovery after departure from the International Space Station on Aug. 6, 2005. A portion of the shuttle's aft cargo bay, its vertical stabilizer and orbital maneuvering system pods are seen in the foreground. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A lightning bolt crackles down in the distance on Aug. 14, 2006, during preparations at Edwards Air Force Base in California to return the shuttle Discovery to its Florida home base. The gantry-style structure surrounding Discovery is used to mount the shuttle atop a modified Boeing 747 jet for a cross-country piggyback flight. (Tom Tschida / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Discovery lands at the Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on June 14, 2008. The shuttle completed a 14-day mission to the International Space Station, where it delivered the Japanese Kibo module. The STS-124 mission also included three spacewalks. (Justin Dernier / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Discovery approaches the International Space Station during rendezvous and docking operations on June 2, 2008. The second component of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Kibo laboratory, the Japanese Pressurized Module, is visible in Discovery's cargo bay. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A woman kicks back as she watches from Titusville, Fla., as the space shuttle Discovery launches from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on May 31, 2008. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. With Earth as a backdrop, Discovery approaches the International Space Station during STS-133 rendezvous and docking operations on Feb. 26, 2011. Discovery, on its 39th and final flight, carried up the Italian-built Permanent Multipurpose Module, Express Logistics Carrier 4 and Robonaut 2, the first humanoid robot in space. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (27) Shuttle Discovery's historic career
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Video: Discovery to take final flight

  1. Transcript of: Discovery to take final flight

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Space shuttle Discovery is loaded up and affixed to the top of a Boeing 747 for its final flight tomorrow morning from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Washington, DC. It's heading to the Smithsonian and it's scheduled to take a nice low pass over the space coast of Florida as it departs tomorrow prior to a nice low flyover of DC before landing. Discovery 's a veteran. It went into service when Reagan was president in '84. Flew 39 missions, not counting tomorrow's suborbital final mission .

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