Space shuttle Discovery gets red-carpet treatment at Air and Space Museum

April 19, 2012

Discovery, NASA’s hardest-working space shuttle, was welcomed to its new mission as a Smithsonian museum object on Thursday in a ceremony replete with Washington pageantry .

But first, Discovery stood nose to nose with the shuttle Enterprise on a runway behind its new home at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the National Air and Space Museum’s Northern Virginia annex. The U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps played, fans and astronauts greeted the shuttle and a full day of events commenced to greet the Smithsonian’s latest addition.

Charred from its incredible history, the spacecraft was serenaded into its new job by Denyce Graves, Washington’s go-to soprano, who sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Space pioneer John Glenn said, “The space shuttle Discovery is the star.”

A corp of astronauts wearing their blue jumpsuits escorted the Discovery down the runway. As the top of the shuttle appeared from behind the trees, the hundreds assembled — some six deep along the fences — quickly turned into photographers. And the picture-taking didn’t stop for hours.

The shuttle represents the “American spirit,” said Gen. John R. “Jack’’ Dailey, the director of the Air and Space Museum.

Glenn, who at age 77 joined a 1998 Discovery mission and became the oldest person to travel to space, opposed the termination of the shuttle program by former President George W. Bush. “It ended prematurely,” the former senator from Ohio said, “but that decision has been made, and we’ve moved on to other things.”

Others in attendance volunteered intimate knowledge of the shuttle. “I strapped in every one of them,” said Travis Thompson, one of many shuttle workers who reunited Thursday.

And for Ivette Jones, a former NASA astronaut instructor, Discovery’s arrival provided a moment of closure. After losing her NASA job at the end of the shuttle program, Jones moved to the region to work for the Navy. “I’m so happy it’s here,” she said. “I told the Smithsonian folks to take good care of it.”

Abraham Gelabert, a 25-year veteran of the Fairfax County police, stood on the grass trying to take perfect pictures. He belongs to an Internet flight stimulation club. “I’m going to share some of these pictures with them,” Gelabert said.

To mark the occasion, two contractors in the Smithsonian Institution’s collections department had designed cardboard shuttle hats for themselves. Once discovered, Ashley Koen and Stephanie Harris were the target of a photo scrum. “We were talking about the excitement of today,” Koen said. “And we create things all day long, so we decided to make hats.”

Discovery arrived in Washington on Tuesday after an elaborate flyover of the Mall that brought spectators into the streets. It landed at Dulles International Airport, where it awaited its shipment to the Udvar-Hazy Center.

Bob Zimmerman was one of the pilots flying the modified Boeing 747 that brought Discovery to town, but he couldn’t see the crowds along the Potomac and the streets during the flyover. “It didn’t really hit me until I got to the hotel room and turned on the TV and saw these children wearing space outfits,” he said. “I got the chills thinking, ‘Wow, this brought a lot of joy to people.’ ”

A crew had put Discovery on the ground at 4:30 a.m. Thursday, hours before the official ceremony. It will replace Enterprise, which is moving to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan.

G. Wayne Clough, the secretary of the Smithsonian, quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line about “no second acts” in life. But, Clough countered: “Now Discovery begins its own second life.”

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