The US space shuttle Enterprise bowed out Friday on America's biggest stage -- a flyover of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan's skyscrapers -- before heading to a museum in New York at the end of an era in American space travel.
Crowds along the Hudson cheered as the shuttle, piggybacking on a modified Boeing 747, passed three times over New York harbor.
"I think it's one of the coolest things I've ever seen. I'm almost speechless," said Leuinda Field, 37, a teacher who brought her three-year-old son to see the historic moment. "It's beautiful and amazing."
Enterprise then landed at John F. Kennedy Airport in preparation for being transported to a final resting place aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier, turned floating museum, USS Intrepid.
Cheers and excited shouts erupted among hundreds of tourists and New Yorkers gathered to witness the slow-moving tandem. School children ran across a small park at the tip of Manhattan to follow the lumbering Boeing and the familiar, yet still exotic looking shuttle as they cruised through broken sunshine on a cold, breezy spring morning.
This was a moment of pride in America's achievements, mixed with nostalgia and worry about the future.
The US space shuttle program formally ended in July 2011 after 30 years of human space flight, leaving Russia as the only nation capable of sending astronauts to space -- a climb-down by the United States that coincides with broader loss of national confidence in the economy and government.
In these uncertain times, the mothballing of the shuttle fleet was seen by some as a symbol of the country's need to address problems back on Earth.
"It makes me sad there are no more shuttles. I'll miss it," Field said. "I want to be forward thinking and think about the bigger picture, but we have women and children that need to be fed. I think we need people living in warm homes more than exploring space."
Bill Mundy, a World War II navy veteran, 85, was filled with emotion as he watched the spectacle alongside his firefighter son. But he said it was time America narrowed its focus.
"I don't know what the future is. I think we have to start by taking care of home a little more. We can't take care of the whole world," Mundy said.
The shuttle and the Boeing, tailed by the shining speck of a fighter plane, left Washington, DC, early Friday.
A prototype, Enterprise was completed in 1976, then used only for atmospheric test flights the following year, never flying in space, unlike the other five members of the fleet.
Now, Enterprise will become a tourist attraction.
"Several weeks following the arrival, Enterprise will be 'demated' from the 747 and placed on a barge that will be moved by tugboat up the Hudson River to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in June," NASA said in a statement.
The final voyages of the other shuttles have also attracted large numbers of fans.
Shuttle Discovery's flyover of Washington drew huge photo-snapping crowds, and on April 19 it became the first of the retired shuttle fleet to enter a museum, the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.
Later this year, Endeavour will move from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
The shuttle Atlantis, also still in Florida, will make just a short hop to a new exhibit at the Kennedy Center's visitor complex.
Two other shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were destroyed in accidents. Challenger disintegrated shortly after liftoff in 1986 and Columbia broke apart on re-entry to Earth in 2003. Both disasters killed everyone on board.
by Sebastian Smith Â© 2012 AFP
Date: Apr 27, 2012