The Space Shuttle Discovery will land at the National Air and Space Museum, giving it another important piece of space history.

The space shuttle Discovery at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (TERRY RENNA/AP)

Plans for a retirement home for Discovery set off a fierce competition among museums and space centers. The Smithsonian had widely been considered a front-runner for the huge, 175,000-pound artifact. But still there were jitters Tuesday when a group of employees and visitors watched the official announcement from the Kennedy Space Center.

When NASA administrator Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. listed the selections, the visitors and staff members hooted and took pictures of the super-sized screen carrying the televised broadcast.

“We have had a 40-year partnership with NASA. Yet this was not a sure thing. It would have been easy not to give it to us,” said J.R. “Jack” Dailey, the museum’s director and an eyewitness to seven launches and “almost every landing” of the shuttle fleet.

Discovery will go on display at the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport. The date of the ship’s debut at the Smithsonian has not been set, Dailey said. He estimated that it would be at least a year, and said that NASA was assuming the cost of the shuttle cleaning and transport.

The shuttle is the largest artifact the museum has received since it opened in 1976. Discovery is 122 feet long, has a wingspan of 78 feet and a tail height of 56 feet.

The Udvar-Hazy center, however, has had a huge spot-in-waiting. One of the facility’s main attractions has been the Enterprise, a test vehicle transferred by NASA to the museum in 1985 and resides in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar. That space vehicle will be transferred to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, Bolden announced.

The Air and Space Museum on the Mall is the most visited museum in the world with 8.3-million visits in 2010. Dailey said he was sure the new acquisition would bring more people to the facility, which opened in 2003 and averages about 1.2-million visitors a year.

The Discovery is an enormous bookend to the two museum’s history of spacecraft and space travel, and its materials from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs. In addition to its space history, Discovery made its mark in social history also. Discovery was the first shuttle to fly after the Challenger and Columbia disasters. It was the spacecraft that flew John Glenn back into space at age 77; it was flown by the first African American commander, Frederick Gregory, in 1989; and it was guided by the first female pilot, Eileen Collins, in 1995. The ship made the first docking with the International Space Station in 1999, the first of 13 flights.

For visitors, Dailey said, there’s nothing like an up-close look at history. “It is that experience of being with the real thing. It is a connection that is hard to describe,” said Dailey, a former NASA associate deputy administrator. He recounted the times he stood three miles away from the launches and felt the ground shake. “You feel the pressure of the launch and the crackle of the boosters. You see it and feel it,” he said.

The announcement coincided with the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle mission. The other orbiters are going to the California Science Center in Los Angeles and the visitor complex at the Kennedy Space Center.