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Image: Discovery space shuttle transfer ceremony at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Michael Reynolds  /  EPA
The Enterprise space shuttle (L) and Discovery space shuttle (R) face each other during the Discovery transfer ceremony at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, in Chantilly, Virginia, USA, 19 April 2012.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 4/19/2012 6:27:55 PM ET 2012-04-19T22:27:55

The space shuttle Discovery was rolled into its new home in the Smithsonian on Thursday, completing its transformation from spaceship to museum exhibit.

A low-slung tow truck pulled the 83-ton orbiter into position inside its hangar at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center here, taking care to angle the tail through a specially cut notch in the hangar's door and avoid hitting the satellites hung from the ceiling.

When the shuttle finally settled into position, cheers went up from scores of museumgoers who watched the operation.

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Discovery replaces the prototype shuttle Enterprise, which has been in the Smithsonian's custody since 1985 and was on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center since its opening in 2003. Discovery will be displayed exactly as Enterprise was — with the exception that Discovery's scarred and blemished exterior has been left pretty much as it was when it returned from its last spaceflight in March 2011.

"It's got a kind of grit to the story," said the Smithsonian Institution's secretary, Wayne Clough.

Past and future of spaceflight
The move-in operation came hours after a ceremony marking the shuttle's handover from NASA to the Smithsonian. Dignitaries hailed the past and future of American spaceflight while Discovery and Enterprise sat nose-to-nose as a backdrop.

More than two dozen of the astronauts who flew on Discovery attended the ceremony — including NASA Administrator Charles Bolden; NASA's first woman shuttle commander, Eileen Collins; and retired senator-astronaut John Glenn, who was the first American in orbit 50 years ago and a Discovery payload specialist in 1998.

"This is one of the greatest gatherings of astronauts probably in the history of NASA," said Gen. J.R. "Jack" Dailey, the museum's director, whose voice quickly choked up with emotion.

The retirement of Discovery and NASA's two other working shuttles may mark the end of a 30-year chapter in American spaceflight, but not the end of the story.

"Today, while we look back at Discovery's amazing legacy, I also want to look forward to what she and the shuttle fleet helped to make possible," Bolden told the crowd. "As NASA transfers the shuttle orbiters to museums across the country, we are embarked on an exciting new space exploration journey."

He referred to NASA's plans to develop a new heavy-lift rocket and spaceship that could take astronauts beyond Earth orbit, to near-Earth asteroids and eventually Mars — places where the space shuttles could not possibly go. Bolden also touted NASA's partnerships with commercial space companies to send cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station, which could not have been built without the space shuttles.

"What we learned [through the shuttle program] will be applied to the next generation of space transportation systems," Bolden said.

Glenn reviewed Discovery's record as the world's most traveled space plane, and although he said the shuttle was "prematurely grounded," he said the craft had a long career ahead of it as a source of inspiration for future generations. "Today Discovery takes on a new mission — less dynamic, perhaps, but nonetheless important," Glenn said.

The senator-astronaut then served as a witness as Bolden, Dailey and Clough signed papers formally transferring Discovery to the museum's care.

Switching shuttles
The stage was set for the ceremony earlier in the morning, when Enterprise was rolled outside from the place it had held in the Udvar-Hazy Center's James S. McDonnell Space Hangar. Meanwhile, Discovery was hoisted off a modified NASA 747 jet, which it rode piggyback on Tuesday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Dulles International Airport.

Image: shuttle arriving
Bill Ingalls  /  AP
The space shuttle Discovery is suspended from a sling held by two cranes as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a modified Boeing 747, is backed away at Washington Dulles International Airport early Thursday. Discovery rode on the back of the 747 from Florida to Virginia.

It was just a short three-mile tow from the Dulles runway to the museum. Just as Thursday's ceremony began, Discovery was pulled along for the last few hundred yards, coming to rest just in front and to the side of Enterprise.

The ceremony drew thousands of onlookers to the Udvar-Hazy Center, including 9-year-old Aaron DiFranco of Laytonsville, Md. DiFranco's family took him to the final space shuttle launches last year — and on Thursday, he wore his astronaut costume in Discovery's honor.

When asked whether he was more anxious about seeing astronauts or the spaceship in which they flew, he didn't hesitate with his answer. "The shuttle!" he said.

Thursday's events were the opening splash for a "Welcome Discovery" festival at the center, featuring space-related activities, performances, appearances by astronauts, films and displays. Friday will be "Student Discovery Day" — and on Saturday and Sunday, the museum will be serving up a full schedule of activities for families.

Discovery's place in history
When NASA announced the shuttle fleet's retirement, the Smithsonian got first pick of the orbiters, and decided to go with Discovery.

"NASA and the Smithsonian signed an agreement in 1967 that has enabled the National Air and Space Museum to preserve and display the greatest icons of our nation's space history," Dailey explained in a statement. "At the Udvar-Hazy Center, Discovery will be seen by millions of people in the coming years, especially children, who will become the next generation of scientists, engineers, researchers and explorers."

Discovery was the first shuttle to be decommissioned, after flying 39 missions, more than any other single manned spacecraft in history. It logged 148,221,675 miles and 5,830 orbits of Earth during 365 days in outer space. Discovery's achievements include the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, John Glenn's flight at the age of 77 (which made him the oldest person to fly in space), and the "return to flight" missions after the Challenger explosion and the Columbia disaster.

"Space shuttle Discovery is the star," Glenn said. "It has the most extensive record of all the shuttles."

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Discovery's sister orbiters, Atlantis and Endeavour, will be headed to Florida's Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center and the California Science Center in Los Angeles, respectively.

The Enterprise is a special case: It was used as an aerodynamic test vehicle during the shuttle's development but never flew in space. Weather permitting, Enterprise will be loaded up on the modified 747 at Dulles, just as Discovery was in Florida, and flown to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport as early as Monday.

Eventually, the Enterprise will be placed on a barge for a ride to its new home on the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, docked at Pier 86 on Manhattan's West Side.

Follow msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle) for updates on Discovery's transfer.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Video: Smithsonian accepts Discovery for exhibition

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