On Tuesday morning, if the weather’s clear, well-placed Washingtonians might hear a rumble, maybe even a roar.
It’s a spaceship winging over Washington, space shuttle Discovery riding piggyback on a silver 747.
After 39 trips to space, NASA’s oldest surviving shuttle is making one more flight, to its retirement home, the Smithsonian’s cavernous Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport. Before landing, NASA plans to show off the retired space truck in a spectacular flyover visible to much of the region.
Weather permitting, Discovery and its carrier 747 will depart Kennedy Space Center in Florida around 7 a.m. and arrive in the Washington area around 10 a.m. for a 40-minute aerial tour.
NASA and National Air and Space Museum officials refused to release full details of the flight path, citing security concerns. One NASA official, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, acknowledged that keeping the flight path secret would diminish the number of viewers who duck outside for the historic sight.
At the same time, the museum mounted a Twitter campaign to encourage area residents to spot the shuttle and Tweet photos of it with the hashtag #spottheshuttle. To play, viewers must be willing and able to hang around outside for nearly an hour midmorning.
That’s because the 747 will be zooming by very quickly.
NASA did release a list of locations the plane was scheduled to fly near or over, including much of the Potomac River in the District, Ronald Reagan National Airport, National Harbor, the U.S. Capitol, the Mall, Andrews Air Force Base and much of the Capital Beltway on the Maryland side.
Views from atop downtown buildings should be spectacular.
Except for a few swoops, the 747 will cruise at 1,500 feet, high enough so that it isn’t looming like a menace.
Anyone in Washington in November 1985 may remember a similar flyover, when NASA showed off the prototype space shuttle Enterprise before it landed at Dulles and the Smithsonian took possession.
NASA’s experienced flight crew may cancel or modify the extraordinary fly-around at any time. Rain or wind could stop the show, sending the behemoth duo to an early landing.
The parking lot at the Udvar-Hazy Center will open at 8 a.m. for “guaranteed viewing,” said Valerie Neal, the National Air and Space Museum curator who procured Discovery. Even if the flyover is canceled, the plane does, after all, have to land.
BEST PLACES TO WATCH
District of Columbia
●The Mall, including Memorial Bridge, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the east end.
●Hains Point at East Potomac Park, south of Jefferson Memorial and 14th Street Bridge.
●Southwest Waterfront Park.
●Long Bridge Park, 475 Long Bridge Dr., Arlington.
●Old Town Alexandria waterfront.
●Gravelly Point, just off George Washington Parkway, near National Airport.
●National Harbor, just off the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Prince George’s County.
Details are available online at www.airandspace.si.edu/collections/discovery/.
After a NASA crew hoists Discovery off its carrier 747, they’ll tow the shuttle to the Udvar-Hazy Center for an all-day celebration Thursday. An 11 a.m. public ceremony will feature 14 of Discovery’s living commanders, former astronaut and Ohio senator John Glenn, and music by the U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps.
After the ceremony, visitors can see Discovery and the Smithsonian’s current shuttle, the prototype Enterprise, nose-to-nose outside the museum until 5:30 p.m., when Discovery will be rolled into its retirement home, the museum’s James S. McDonnell Space Hangar.
Special events and displays will continue inside and outside the museum through Sunday , keeping space fans occupied with a solar telescope; a mock-up of NASA’s next crewed spacecraft, the Orion capsule; models of the international space station and NASA’s newest Mars rover; and a pop-up planetarium with shows narrated by Big Bird and Elmo.