(Nick Ut / Associated Press )
With end of the space shuttle program, NASA is retiring one of its two modified Boeing 747 jetliners that were used to fly shuttle aircraft -- piggyback style -- from their West Coast landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave desert back to Cape Canaveral, Fla., for more flights.
Used for 21 years, the space agency’s shuttle carrier aircraft NASA 911 last week flew its last mission – a 20-minute excursion – from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards to Dryden's aircraft operations facility in nearby Palmdale.
The Boeing 747-100 was acquired by NASA in 1989 from Japan Airlines and delivered in 1990. It was used for 386 flights, including 66 flights carrying a space shuttle.
In Palmdale, north of Los Angeles, the jumbo jet will be used for spare parts for NASA's new Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which features a 100-inch-diameter reflecting telescope mounted on the rear fuselage of another modified 747. The airborne observatory went into service in 2010.
NASA's other space-shuttle carrier plane will be used to ferry the decommissioned shuttle orbiters starting this spring and fall from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to museums around the country where they will be on permanent display.
The space agency has awarded retired space shuttles to institutions in New York, Florida, the Washington, D.C., area and Southern California. In Los Angeles, the shuttle Endeavour is eventually to be housed in a new wing of the California Science Center, a state-run museum in Exposition Park near USC.
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