Open Story: Shuttle Discovery's final flight

Editor's note: This story is a collaborative effort of CNN journalists and iReport contributors telling the story of space shuttle Discovery's final flight.
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  • Shuttle Discovery made its final flight on April 17
  • The shuttle will retire at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
  • Spot the shuttle during its flight and upload your photos to the map above
  • Share your thoughts on the future of the space program in the comments below

(CNN) -- "Bittersweet."


It's the word we've heard most often about the space shuttle Discovery's final flight, from astronauts and iReporters alike.


When the shuttle touched down at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, it marked the end of an era. Discovery flew atop a specially modified 747 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to its new home: the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The shuttle flew its last mission in 2011, and the move marks the its transition from explorer to educator.


Discovery will replace Enterprise, which now sits at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Enterprise, a test shuttle that never flew in space, will go to its new home at the Intrepid Museum in New York. The shuttle Endeavour will head to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and Atlantis will take up permanent residence at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.


Crowds came out to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, stood on rooftops in Washington and lined the National Mall to catch a glimpse of Discovery. It flew over Florida's Space Coast beaches after takeoff, and circled several D.C. landmarks before landing at Dulles airport, drawing cheers from onlookers.


But for many, disappointment about the end of the shuttle program cut the excitement about Discovery’s last flight. The 30-year program ended in July with the final mission of space shuttle Atlantis.


"We're really sad to see them stop flying," said Danny Mills, who worked on several shuttle missions. "There's a lot of life left in the shuttles."


"I have never failed to feel a swell of pride and amazement at one of our most awesome achievements," agreed Christine Hausmann. She grew up in Cocoa Beach, Florida -- near Kennedy Space Center -- and says "we always look up."


"I am trying to believe it is not all over, but right now it seems to be an end of the era, and it is a crushing blow," she added.


For many of those outside Florida, the shuttle's final journey ironically represented the first time they were able to see it fly.


"Seeing the shuttle pass by [the] balcony was overwhelming and euphoric at the same time," said Zeid Derhally of Washington, D.C. He's disappointed that the program has to end but says, "I understand why, to a certain degree."


"It's bittersweet. It was really exciting to see the shuttle fly," agreed Sarah Wendel, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. She also pointed out one good thing about the shuttle's retirement: its accessibility to the public. "Now I really want to check it out in the museum and see it close-up," she said.


Still others are OK with the shuttle program's end -- as long as some sort of space research continues.


"I think the shuttle program was ready for retirement," said Jon Rosiska, who works at Kennedy Space Center. "We just need to get moving with the next programs. I'm concerned that politics and budget constraints could cause us to fall further behind."


"It's old technology, plain and simple, built for one purpose," said Randy Lathrop. "It's served its purpose well, but it's time to move on. Who has a 30-year-old TV or car?"


"I see private enterprise stepping in and taking the reins," he added. "To what degree I'm not sure, but I think private enterprise is eventually going to start driving space exploration."


Former shuttle commander Steve Lindsey summed up the thoughts of so many:


"Bittersweet is an overused word, but it is sad," he said. "[But] we've got to move on; we've got to make sure that spaceflight doesn't die in this nation."


And it won't -- at least if these passionate CNN iReporters have anything to do with it.


Be sure to check out CNN's tribute to the shuttle program: 30 years of shuttles