CHANTILLY, Va. – After logging 39 flights and nearly a year spent orbiting the Earth, space shuttle Discovery ended its epic career with an around-the-Beltway tour of the nation’s capital before landing at its final destination near Dulles International Airport on Tuesday (April 17). The Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum annex will now prepare Discovery for permanent display at the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center here.
A modified Boeing 747 carrying Discovery piggy-back style from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida buzzed the museum annex twice during its low-altitude farewell tour of the Washington area before touching down at Dulles to the cheers of thousands of onlookers. It was a glorious end for Discovery, the workhorse of NASA’s shuttle fleet, the spacecraft that launched the Hubble Space Telescope, ferried 77-year-old John Glenn back into space in 1998 and twice returned the U.S. to space after a pair of fatal shuttle accidents.
Discovery (designated by NASA as Orbital Vehicle-103) had not been seen in these parts since its final flight in February 2011 when it was briefly visible in the night sky flying in formation with the International Space Station.
The skies over Washington fell silent just after 9:30 a.m. eastern to make way for Discovery’s arrival. Escorted by a NASA T-38 jet, the 747 ferrying Discovery thundered over this location before flying low one last time over the monuments of Washington and its vicinity. After another pass it headed west to fly over several government installations in northern Virginia before making its final approach into Dulles, where all commercial air traffic had been delayed and adjacent roads were closed to allow overflow crowds to view the flyover.
After landing here, the 747 was parked near a specially designed crane structure where Discovery will be lifted off the back of the plane and wheeled into the Udvar-Hazy Center, which houses historic aircraft such as the Enola Gay, the Army Air Corps B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.
Discovery will replace the prototype shuttle Enterprise in the Smithsonian’s collection here. Enterprise, which was used to test the shuttle design in the late 1970s, did not fly in space. Enterprise is scheduled to fly later this month to New York City where it will be placed on permanent display aboard the Intrepid Museum on the Hudson River.
A local man said he was here 30 years ago when Enterprise was first placed on display. “I can’t believe so much has happened [in spaceflight] since then,” he said.
Shuttle Atlantis will remain on display at the Kennedy Space Center. The California Science Center in Los Angeles will display the other remaining shuttle, Endeavour.
The slideshow that follows records some of the scenes during the final flight of shuttle Discovery.
The best spot to view the Discovery fly-by was the top of the observation tower at the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport. (Photo credit: Joseph Asero)