Space shuttle Discovery makes final flight over Washington D.C.

April 18, 2012

The space shuttle Discovery made its historic final voyage April 17, 2012, including a tour over the Washington, D.C. area. The Post’s Brian Vastag talked to local shuttle-watchers.

A spectacular aerial tour pulled Washingtonians out of their offices Tuesday morning as the space shuttle Discovery, riding piggy-back on a 747, flew low and slow over the Capitol, White House, the Mall and much of the Potomac River. The duo touched down at Dulles International Airport, just a few miles from Discovery’s retirement home, the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly.

“Breathtaking,” said Rupi Stepniczka, 44, of Herndon, who watched Discovery cruise over Dulles runway 1R from the top of the airport’s parking deck. “I had tears in my eyes.”

Stepniczka pulled her three children out of school to witness the final landing of Discovery, which was NASA’s hardest-working spaceship for 27 years.

Discovery made its first pass over Dulles 10 minutes ahead of schedule, spurring stragglers to run up the stairs to the parking deck roof, where 400 people gathered from as far as Pittsburgh and North Carolina.

“Awe-inspiring, just amazing,” said Kathy Hertz Kinter, 35, of Clifton after Discovery, its modified 747 carrier and a white dart of a NASA T-38 chase plane winged over Dulles and turned right to head toward the District.

“It was just like, ‘whoosh,’ and it went right over our heads,” said Hertz Kinter, who brought her son Sam, 9. “Maybe this will propel Sam to be an astronaut.”

Photographers on the parking deck roof perched atop coolers and chairs as Discovery returned 45 minutes later, easing down runway 1R for a second pass before circling the airport and finally flaring to a landing.

“There it is!” someone yelled as the 747’s landing lights appeared to the west and the crowd began to clap.

Weathered, battered and beat-up looking, Discovery’s scuffed side panels told the story of its 39 trips to space.

Kevin Ambrose was one of several photographers who got access to the Netherlands Carillon Tower for a prime view of Discovery’s flyover.

Ascending the steps up into the 50-bell Netherlands Carillon tower is an amazing experience. The 360 degree view of Washington and Rosslyn is beautiful. Throw in several flyovers by the space shuttle Discovery and it’s a simply breathtaking sight.

The National Park Service permitted the media to access to the Netherland Carillon’s tower Tuesday morning to photograph the space shuttle flying over Washington. The tower is usually closed to the public for safety reasons but offers one of the best views of Washington and the surrounding area.

The shuttle arrived over Rossyln at 9:55 AM and headed east toward Washington. It made at least three loops around the city before departing for Dulles Airport around 10:30 AM. The flight path of the loops varied and Discovery covered a lot of ground across the area.

It was quite a sight for us in the tower as the shuttle was visible for most of its loops around the city. Higher resolution images of Discovery’s Washington flyover scenes are available here.

The space shuttle will be displayed at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport. As Brian Vastag reported:

When you’re one of the world’s most famous museums taking possession of the world’s most famous spaceship, the first question is also the biggest: how to display it.

For Valerie Neal, curator of human spaceflight at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the answer was simple: Present the space shuttle as if it had just landed, gear down, payload doors closed, underbelly scorched.

All that will be missing is the smell.

Exclusive: Explore an interactive of Discovery’s flight deck

“There’s definitely a space smell when it lands,” said NASA’s Stephanie Stilson, who prepped Discovery for launch 11 times. “It’s kind of a burnt-metal smell, an ozone smell.”

On Thursday evening — if good weather holds this week — crews will park Discovery inside its retirement home, a hangar at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport.

Workers will open the hangar’s back door, tow in the shuttle, and voila: instant display.

Even as crews close out Discovery’s cabin — installing flight seats, then battening the hatch — visitors can approach the shuttle and, if an idle worker is nearby, strike up a chat.

Since 2004, the Udvar-Hazy Center has housed NASA’s prototype shuttle, Enterprise. Pristine, shiny white, never launched, Enterprise is virginal.

Discovery, by contrast, is very well loved.

Her siding is singed, seared, burned and battered, badly in need of a wash. Her 20,000 black heat shield tiles are scorched, chipped and cracked; some look like they have been baked into briquettes. (Many of the tiles would have been replaced had Discovery flown again.)

More from The Washington Post

Gigapan: Explore Discovery’s flight deck

Graphic: Discovery space shuttle moves to its final home

Video: National Cathedral staff watched Discovery flyover

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