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Before the space shuttle Discovery made its farewell flyover this week, it had to be attached to a 747 in what NASA calls the mate-demate device at the Kennedy Space center in Florida. The Boeing 747, called the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), was an ordinary commercial jet before being modified at NASA to transport shuttles between earthbound locations.

Observers gathered along the coast to watch as the SCA escorted the Discovery shuttle to Washington, where Discovery will be on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It’s not surprising that Discovery looks a little worse for the wear: In 39 different missions, Discovery orbited the Earth 5,830 times and traveled 148,221,675 miles. Highlights of the shuttle’s career include deploying the Hubble Space Telescope, completing the first space-shuttle rendezvous and the final shuttle docking with the Russian space station Mir. Discovery also docked with the International Space Station 13 times and supplied more than 31,000 pounds of hardware for the space laboratory.


The SCA and the space shuttle Discovery on the ramp of the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Earlier, the duo backed out of the mate-demate device. Known as the MDD, the device is a large gantry-like steel structure used to hoist a shuttle off the ground and position it onto the back of the aircraft, or SCA. NASA/Kim Shiflett


The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft carrying space shuttle Discovery backs out of the Shuttle Landing Facility’s mate-demate device at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA/Kim Shiflett


The SCA transporting space shuttle Discovery to its new home takes off from the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at about 7 a.m. EDT. The duo fly south over Brevard County’s beach communities for residents to get a look at the shuttle before it leaves the Space Coast for the last time. NASA/Jim Grossmann


Workers use two cranes to position the sling that will be used to demate the space shuttle Discovery at the Apron W area of Washington Dulles international Airport in Sterling, Va. NASA/Bill Ingalls


The space shuttle Discovery is suspended from a sling held by two cranes after the SCA was pushed back from underneath at Washington Dulles International Airport, Thursday, April 19, 2012, in Sterling, VA. NASA/Bill Ingalls

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Today marks the end of an era. Three decades of missions came to a close this morning as the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down in Florida after a 13-day trip to the International Space Station. All told, the 135 space shuttle missions have racked up more than 542 million miles in low earth orbit. Commander Chris Ferguson piloted the Atlantis to a safe landing at 5:52 a.m., and the spacecraft will soon undergo processing and decommissioning. It has been an emotional experience for residents and workers along Florida's Space Coast -- some 9,000 shuttle engineers, technicians, and other staff are being laid off, and the main tourism draw for the area has come to an end. Shown here, for one last time, is a look at a full shuttle mission, STS-135, the final flight of Atlantis. Also, be sure to see The History of the Space Shuttle, an earlier entry on In Focus. [39 photos]

A view of the space shuttle Atlantis and its payload on July 10, 2011, seen from the International Space Station. At the rear of the cargo bay is the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module, packed with supplies and spare parts for the ISS. (NASA)

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Roberto Beltramini / Space 3D

A 3-D view created from NASA imagery shows the space shuttle Endeavour docked to the International Space Station during that shuttle's last mission in May.

Alan Boyle writes

How can you possibly improve upon the ultimate pictures of the space shuttle and the International Space Station together in orbit? By turning them into 3-D photos, of course.

That's what Italian amateur astronomer Roberto Beltramini did with the imagery captured in May by his countryman, astronaut Paolo Nespoli. The "ultimate" opportunity presented itself when Nespoli and two other spacefliers were leaving the space station to come back home during the shuttle Endeavour's final orbital tour. Nespoli shot high-definition stills and video from the departing Soyuz spacecraft, and the fruits of his labors were made public last month.

Beltramini took pairs of slightly offset images and tweaked them to produce these stereo views, displayed on his Space 3D gallery and republished with permission.

Roberto Beltramini / Space 3D

In this view, you can make out Endeavour's robotic arm curling around the shuttle. Red-blue glasses are required for the 3-D effect.

Roberto Beltramini / Space 3D

A different perspective shows Endeavour's rear end, head-on.

These are perspectives we'll never see again — not even during Atlantis' program-ending visit to the space station this month. It was a scheduling fluke that a Soyuz craft happened to be leaving the station while Endeavour was docked, and the circumstance is virtually certain not to be repeated.

We just might see Atlantis and the station linked together from a different perspective, however. Photographers such as France's Thierry Legault are getting better and better at snapping amazing pictures of the station-shuttle complex from Earth, and during Atlantis' mission, you'll want to check Legault's website as well as Patrick Vantuyne's 3-D photo gallery.

Update for 9:40 p.m. ET: You'll need red-blue glasses to get the full 3-D effect from the pictures offered by Beltramini and Vantuyne. I'm in the process of sending out 3-D specs to at least a dozen (and probably more) members of the Cosmic Log Facebook community as part of our occasional "3-D Giveaway" program. To join the community, all you have to do is click the "Like" button on the Facebook page. The glasses are being provided courtesy of Microsoft Research. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.) If you're one of today's winners, congrats: I'll start sending out the glasses after Atlantis lifts off.

More 3-D views from space:

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds. 

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