CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The space shuttle Discovery departed at daybreak Tuesday from the Kennedy Space Center. It was headed for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center on top of a modified jumbo jet.
For Kennedy Space Center workers, astronauts and residents of Florida's Space Coast, the time has come to say goodbye to the beloved space shuttles.
Many of those present Monday morning as Discovery left the mate-demate device agreed the Smithsonian-bound orbiter's departure is bittersweet.
'Heart and soul'
"It's hard to say goodbye," said Michael Mills, who works in resources protection for Chenega Security. He arrived at the space center in 1985 as an Air Force veteran with a love of all things space.
"I've seen every shuttle launch since 1985 and none were ever the same," he said. "It gave me goosebumps the first time and the last time, too. ... People here put their heart and soul into the program."
Watching the first one - Discovery - leave will be hardest. When it comes time for Endeavour to depart this fall, that "might be a little easier, perhaps," said Sandra Shaheen, a 27-year space center worker and now, a program management analyst.
Still, Shaheen choked up as she turned toward the shuttle runway where Discovery took off early Tuesday. The flight will land at Dulles International Airport after swooping low over Washington, D.C., monuments.
"It's finally over. It's very surreal," she said. "This is tough. Very tough. I was glad it was dark when they took her out of the Vehicle Assembly Building so no one could see me crying."
Seeing Discovery prepped to travel, but via a very different form, hit the shuttle's last crew with a degree of finality, too. All expressed a desire that the four retired orbiters will inspire generations to come.
Steven Lindsey, the last astronaut to command Discovery, flew it three times. Each journey, he said, was unique.
On his 1998 flight, the first American to orbit Earth, Mercury pioneer John Glenn, was aboard, too. After the Columbia tragedy in 2003, "we were trying to get ourselves back into operational status," Lindsey said, referring to Discovery's Return to Flight mission. The last flight, in February 2011, was the end of an era for the program's most-traveled (39 flights) space vehicle.
"I'm pretending that we're at Edwards and she's flying back to Florida to get ready for another flight," Lindsey said, smiling.
Another Discovery veteran, Nicole Stott, is a Clearwater, Fla., native. The astronaut sees great things ahead for young people interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM, subjects.
"Even if you just look at the 747 Discovery is sitting on, it makes you realize there are really wonderful things we can do if we challenge ourselves," she said. "Having that engineering degree opened up all kinds of opportunities for me to work on programs like the shuttle and the space station and ultimately, as an astronaut flying in space."
Astronaut Eric Boe bid goodbye to Discovery without the crowds. He and others aboard the orbiter's last flight flew into Brevard County, Fla., on Sunday night and shared an up-close farewell.
"The lighting was perfect, the way the sun was hitting the vehicle," Boe said.
"And you look around and think, 'It's amazing, a vehicle like that.' It just looks like it should go into space."