This week, NASA rolled out the space shuttle Discovery ahead of its final launch on November 1. The final shuttle launch is slated for late February, effectively ending the U.S. shuttle program which began in the 1960s.
As the end nears, NASA has relaxed the rules so employees can get an up-close view of the vehicles they have passionately worked on for many years.
As the sun set over Kennedy Space Center on Monday, the mobile launch vehicle carrying Discovery slowly crawled passed the people responsible for keeping the spacecraft flying for the past 26 years on 38 flights. Cheers erupted from thousands of NASA workers gathered outside, as if a rock star just took the stage.
Astronauts signed autographs for employees and their families gathered along the gravel trail.
It took Discovery over six hours to travel the 3-mile journey to launch pad 39a, which it reached early Tuesday. All day Tuesday, NASA shuttle buses transported thousands of employees to the shuttle, where they could take up-close photos of Discovery.
Large groups from the same work site would travel together to have group photos taken in front of Discovery. Some groups would wear matching shirts while others held signs for the photos.
Beth and Jesse Palma, who tied the knot in April, wore their wedding attire for the occasion.
"We wanted something different than a standard wedding photo," said Jesse Palma, 27 . He and his wife have worked for the contractor United Space Alliance at the Kennedy Space Center since 2008. Beth Palma, 26, works at the launch pad and Jesse works at the orbital processing facility.
Jesse Palma said they wanted a less formal wedding photo to give their parents and to have something with the space program to hang on their wall at home.
"So we combined the wedding with the shuttle," he said.
For some employees, the exclusive access to Discovery was a bittersweet moment since it was the last time they would see a shuttle up close. On October 1, 2010, more than 900 NASA workers will be laid off as the shuttle program is retired. That's just part of over 8,000 NASA workers who could see their jobs eliminated as the last shuttle launches in February 2011.
Jesse and Beth Palma are not part of the upcoming layoffs. Nevertheless, the impending change is having an effect on everyone at KSC.
"It's so sad to see it come to an end," he said.