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“There was no other city with our history of human space flight or more deserving of a retiring orbiter,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said.

In a statement, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said the choice clearly showed “political favors trumped common sense and fairness.”

Olga Dominguez, an assistant NASA administrator, said among the factors for NASA’s choices was reaching the largest population possible. The chosen locations already draw more than 1 million visitors apiece each year.

Dominguez denied politics played any role. “It’s unfortunate that the middle of the country didn’t fare as well as the coasts,” she said.

Asked why Houston was bypassed, she said: “We just didn’t have enough to go around.”

There were originally four space shuttles. Challenger was destroyed during liftoff in 1986, and Endeavour was built as a replacement. Then Columbia was lost in 2003.

The space shuttles are being retired as part of NASA’s shifting and still-uncertain future for sending astronauts into space.

“The shuttle program will go down in history as a very, very successful program,” said former shuttle commander Eileen Collins, who led the crew of Discovery on the first flight after Columbia.

“We made mistakes. The space community made mistakes along the way. We learned from them,” she told The Associated Press at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

After the 2003 Columbia accident, President George W. Bush proposed sending astronauts back to the moon. To pay for the expensive new rockets, NASA would retire the space shuttles.

President Barack Obama continued the shuttle retirement, but cancelled the return-to-moon mission in favor of a combination approach. Private companies would build their own rockets, and NASA would pay for rides to the International Space Station, like a taxi.

At the same time, NASA would work on bigger rocketships that would eventually take astronauts to other places, such as an asteroid, and eventually to Mars.

From the space station, American astronaut Catherine Coleman said during the ceremony that the retirement of the space shuttle program should not be viewed as an end.

“It represents the next step in extending humanity’s reach further into space,” said Coleman, one of six people living on the orbiting outpost.

Earlier Tuesday, Coleman’s station crewmate, astronaut Ron Garan, noted that Gagarin’s flight and the first shuttle launch were byproducts of a space race between two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. That competition has evolved into a space station program where engineers and astronauts from 16 nations work together.

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