By The Associated Press
CHANTILLY, Va. (AP) — Space shuttle Discovery soared around the Washington Monument and the White House in a salute to the nation’s capital Tuesday before landing for the last time near its new museum home.
The world’s most traveled spaceship took off at daybreak from Cape Canaveral, Fla., bolted to the top of a modified jumbo jet for the trip. Three hours later, the pair took a few spins around Washington at an easy-to-spot 1,500-foot altitude before the retired shuttle was grounded for good.
The combo landed at Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. Discovery will be towed Thursday to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum annex near the airport.
Thousands of people lined the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol to get a view of the shuttle as it circled three times through partly cloudy skies, surprising watchers each time. The Capitol’s balcony was loaded with onlookers and people stood on rooftops. Construction workers staked out prime viewing spots on cranes.
“That’s fantastic. That’s wonderful. Look at that – you can see the name on it,” gushed Sorena Sorenson, a geology curator who works for the Smithsonian Institution, whose museums line the mall.
For 43 years, she has carried an Apollo 11 medal on her key chain.
“This to me is just so bittersweet,” she said.
NASA ended the shuttle program last summer after a 30-year run to focus on destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Discovery – the fleet leader with 39 orbital missions – is the first of the three retired space shuttles to be turned over to a museum for display. It first launched in 1984.
Terri and Bill Jacobsen of Bethesda, Md., used the shuttle’s flyover as a teaching experience for their home-schooled son Riley. They calculated the speed, angle the shuttle and plane would bank and other factors to figure out just where would be the perfect viewing spot.
They saw the shuttle appear from behind the Washington Monument, seem to go behind the old clock on the Smithsonian castle and then fly a bit above the Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol.
“Oh my God, look at that,” Terri Jacobsen said as the shuttle first appeared. “That thing is mammoth.”
“It was pretty amazing,” said Riley, 12. “Pretty freaking crazy. It looked like it was inflated.”
When Discovery departed Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, nearly 2,000 people – former shuttle workers, VIPs, tourists and journalists – gathered along the old shuttle landing strip to see Discovery off. A cheer went up as the plane taxied down the runway and soared into a clear sky.
The plane and shuttle headed south and made one last flight over the beaches of Cape Canaveral – thousands jammed the shore for a glimpse of Discovery – then returned to the space center in a final salute. Cheers erupted once more as the pair came in low over the runway before finally turning toward the north.
Astronaut Nicole Stott, part of Discovery’s final crew, watched with her crewmates as the shuttle departed. “Smiling on the outside,” she said in a tweet. “DC bound. Take great care of her!”
Discovery’s list of achievements include delivering the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit, carrying the first Russian cosmonaut to launch on a U.S. spaceship, performing the first rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir with the first female shuttle pilot in the cockpit, returning Mercury astronaut John Glenn to orbit, and bringing shuttle flights back to life after the Challenger and Columbia accidents
At the Smithsonian annex, Discovery will take the place of the shuttle prototype Enterprise. The Enterprise will go to New York City. Endeavour will head to Los Angeles this fall. Atlantis will remain at Kennedy.
With the shuttles grounded, private U.S. companies hope to pick up the slack, beginning with space station cargo and then, hopefully, astronauts. The first commercial cargo run, by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is set to take place in just another few weeks.
For at least the next three to five years – until commercial passenger craft are available in the United States – NASA astronauts will have to hitch multimillion-dollar rides on Russian Soyuz capsules to get to the International Space Station.