The shuttle Discovery made a dramatic final appearance in the sky April 17, bringing cheers from onlookers as it passed over Washington, D.C. on the back of its jumbo-jet carrier plane before landing at Dulles International airport.
In “high-flying style,” the Associated Press reported, the shuttle made three “victory laps” at an altitude of 1,500 feet around the Washington area before its carrier aircraft touched down at Dulles.
Discovery was to be formally installed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles on April 19, making a brief, nose-to-nose appearance with the shuttle Enterprise, which it will replace as the centerpiece of the museum’s space displays.
“We pledge to take care of her forever,” retired Marine Corps Gen. J. R. “Jack” Dailey, the NASM director, told reporters. “The shuttle will show young visitors what America is capable of.”
Discovery traveled to the nation’s capital from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Thousands of government workers, schoolchildren and families halted their daily activities long enough to watch the airplane-shuttle combo pass overhead.
Enterprise is a glide- and landing- test vehicle that never journeyed into space. Discovery holds longevity records for NASA’s shuttle fleet, having flown 39 missions, spent 365 days in space, and traveled nearly 150 million miles. Discovery last flew to space in February 2011, on a two-week mission to the International Space Station. NASA retired its space shuttle fleet last July after 30 years of orbital service.
Discovery‘s much-anticipated final flight was made aboard NASA’s Boeing 747-123 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) (registry number N905NA, constructor’s number 20107) accompanied by a NASA T-38N Talon chase plane (N967NA).
Discovery is the first of the retired shuttles to be delivered to its final destination, after museums competed fiercely for the three surviving orbiters that had actually flown in space. Endeavour is headed to the California Science Center in Los Angeles this fall; Atlantis will travel just a couple of miles to the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex at Cape Canaveral, Florida. To take advantage of the presence of the 747 at Dulles, Enterprise was scheduled for a flight to New York on April 23 to begin its transition to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.
The Los Angeles Times reported that because of all the attention stirred up by the 747/Discovery flyover, AAA Mid-Atlantic warned motorists not to be distracted while driving. The newspaper also reported that “for Texas congressmen, the flyover was a bitter reminder that Houston, home of Mission Control, was passed over” as a potential recipient of a display shuttle.
Few Americans with an interest in space travel wanted Discovery‘s arrival to be anything but an occasion for festivity – but it was impossible to overlook the fact that while the shuttle was a miraculous achievement the nation has no Act Two. “It’s a happy day,” said M. P. Curphey, a NASA engineer who worked on the program. “But you’ve got to shed a tear that we’re not doing imaginative things in space today.”
The arrival of Discovery in Washington was “a bittersweet experience” for Thomas D. Jones, a former astronaut who made four orbital flights aboard Columbia, Atlantis and Endeavour. “I felt privileged that I was able to fly on Discovery‘s sister ships,” said Jones. “The shuttle fly-in was a patriotic event shared by thousands of people, but it is a reminder of the lack of a successor to the shuttle. We’re at least five years away from flying astronauts on American rockets and I think that’s a failure of leadership.” Jones said the White House and Congress should be doing more to encourage a new human spaceflight effort to replace shuttle operations.