Retired space shuttle Discovery streaked across the sky one last time Tuesday, piggybacking on a modified Boeing 747 jetliner to Washington Dulles International Airport as it headed for its final resting place: on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Caroline Boucher, who was visiting from Bangor, Pa.
Tourists and locals gathered on the National Mall, on rooftops and at other sites around the nation’s capital to see the historic shuttle in flight before it goes on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.
A 7-year-old boy dressed as an astronaut posed for pictures as his sister stomped on a toy air pump, firing a foam rocket into the air. Bystanders gazed with binoculars, pointing and taking photos as the conjoined crafts took a tandem flight over Washington at an approximate altitude of 1,500 feet — less than three times the height of the Washington Monument — perfect for viewing.
“Wow,” Boucher said. “That’s so cool.”
The monstrous pairing made three passes over the National Mall, where more than 100 spectators had gathered around the Washington Monument. Onlookers gasped, cheered, oohed and aahed, breaking into applause once Discovery cruised out of sight for the last time.
“I feel like I should burst into patriotic song,” exclaimed Meg Cuvellier, a nurse from Litchfield, N.H.
With more flights into space than any other craft, Discovery has circled Earth 5,628 times and carried 246 crew members to orbit. During a mission in 1998, one of those crew members was astronaut John Glenn, then 77 years old. The former senator — the first American to orbit Earth, in 1962 — became the oldest astronaut to fly into space.
The historical significance resonated for Lisa Percival of Seattle, who was in Washington on a one-day layover and staying three blocks from the Mall. Percival was in kindergarten when Glenn made his first voyage into space.
“I remember they brought the entire school into the gym and we all watched the flight on a 12-inch black-and-white TV, and here we are all these years later,” Percival said. “It’s extraordinary.”
Percival walked from her hotel to watch Discovery as it passed behind the U.S. Capitol. “I had tears in my eyes and goose bumps,” she said. “I never dreamed I would see a sight like that.”
Like giant steel Russian dolls stacked one atop the other, the 175,000-pound shuttle balanced on three struts sticking out from atop the shuttle carrier aircraft, a four-engine, intercontinental-range jumbo jet used to transport NASA spacecraft. Before takeoff, the two crafts were joined by a crane and scaffolding that hoisted the shuttle in the air, allowing its escort plane to taxi into position underneath.
“Discovery has done the full scope of human spaceflight,” said Isabel Lara, a spokeswoman for the National Air and Space Museum. “It has had every type of mission, so it fully represents what the space shuttle program accomplished.”
In 1990, Discovery deployed the Hubble telescope and played an integral role in the International Space Station’s development. The first Americans to return to space after the Challenger and Columbia disasters flew on the wings of Discovery. On March 9, 2011, the shuttle completed its 39th and final mission. It’s the first of the three active shuttles to be retired by NASA.
“The shuttle is easily the most sophisticated flying machine ever devised, and anybody who sees the flyover of Discovery is seeing a very, very historic spacecraft,” said Pat Duggins, the author of “Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program.”
NASA will officially hand over the shuttle to the Smithsonian during a ceremony Thursday at Discovery’s new home.
Glenn and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden are among the scheduled speakers.
“It is an icon and it will join its colleagues — the Apollo command module, the Wright Flyer and the Concord — in the museum’s collection,” Lara said.
The Smithsonian will celebrate its new acquisition with four days of special events, including film viewings, performances and appearances by Discovery crew members.
As the shuttle program retires, NASA is at work designing and building “the most powerful rocket ever that will take Americans deeper and farther into space than ever before,” said Michael Curie, a spokesman for NASA.
“With the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, the orbiters are being placed in museums, where generations of Americans will be able to learn and draw inspiration from them,” Curie said. “This now allows NASA to turn the page and look to the future, where human spaceflight will once again focus on exploration.”
Space shuttle Discovery flies over D.C. (Video by Natalie Brunell, Medill News Service)
Students play hooky for space shuttle Discovery. (Video by Elise Brown, Medill News Service)
(Nicole Goodrich and Jean Song of the Medill News Service contributed to this report. The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)