Before rolling to a stop, the visibly singed and scarred craft provided a final bit of space theater: a 45-minute fly-around that sent an icon of American exceptionalism soaring over other iconic sights — the dome of the Capitol, the White House rose garden, the tip of the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian’s original Air and Space Museum.
It was a photo op to remember for the tens of thousands of viewers gathered on the Mall, atop parking garages and office buildings, on bridges and bike paths and hundreds of other choice — and not so choice — locations.
Along the George Washington Parkway, motorists pulled over and stared at the sky.
Tourists outside the Smithsonian museums pointed and gawked.
Photographers stood on coolers and chairs to get a better view.
It was a neck-craning spectacle brought to you by NASA, which lobbied for — and received — permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service and other agencies for the flyover, which repeatedly brought the mammoth pair into restricted air space.
An FAA official rode shotgun on NASA’s modified 747 and granted the flight team real-time permission for three zippy laps over the Mall — two more than originally planned.
After the first pass, a crowd near the Smithsonian Castle chanted for an encore: This was a rock concert for space fans.
“I wanted everyone to put down their cellphones and cameras and just look at the thing with their own eyes,” said Meghan Gordon, who ran out of her office just in time. “It gave me chills.”
There were costumes, there were cheers and, of course, there were tears.
At the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly — Discovery’s new home — 8-year-old Alex Corica wandered the parking lot wearing an orange shuttle flight suit and a helmet too large to fit his head. He was ready not just to witness, but to fly.
With no more moon shots, no more shuttle missions and no human space launches of any kind from American soil these days, some parents still found a way to give their children a special space moment.
Kathy Hertz Kinter of Clifton brought her son Sam, 9, to the rooftop of a Dulles parking garage. “Maybe this will propel Sam to be an astronaut,” she said.
Melissa Honigstein of the District pulled her 5-year-old daughter out of her kindergarten class to see the show. “This last time seeing the shuttle moved me to tears,” Honigstein said moments after Discovery’s cruise by Dulles. Honigstein was 15 when space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch in January 1986. That day remains with her, now leavened by the joy of witnessing Discovery’s final flight.