An aerial art show pulled thousands of Washingtonians out of their offices, vehicles and homes Tuesday morning as NASA’s space shuttle Discovery blew into town atop a modified 747, the battered space veteran taking a final victory jaunt before landing at Dulles International Airport just after 11 a.m.
A quiet retirement awaits Discovery, which blasted into space 39 times — more than any other NASA spacecraft — and is transitioning from rumbling launchpad hero to silent museum piece.
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.
Clear skies along the East Coast put NASA’s pilots 10 minutes ahead of schedule after an early-morning liftoff from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, leaving some spectators scrambling for a view.
Before heading downtown, Discovery buzzed Runway 1R at Dulles, cruising above a well-placed flapping American flag.
Ten minutes later, the piggybacked pair winked into view against gray clouds above the Potomac River, zooming past Reagan National Airport before banking left, circling behind the Capitol, and making the first of three runs down the Mall.
“That is just so wow,” said Martha Taft of the District, wiping away tears as Discovery zoomed over Memorial Bridge with a barely audible “whoosh.”
When a red double-decker tourist bus stopped on the bridge, blocking the view, the crowd booed. The bus moved.
“It was very cool to see how it banked. When it turned, you were able to see the whole shuttle,” said Sam Kristy, 10, whose parents, Ben and Rachel, took him out of school for the show.
On the Mall, cheers, whoops and hollers went up as the tandem flew low.
The shuttle then crossed the Potomac and flew over Arlington National Cemetery and the graves of five astronauts killed in the two space shuttle tragedies. Richard Scobee and Michael J. Smith died aboard Challenger in 1986, and David M. Brown, Laurel Salton Clark and Michael P. Anderson perished when Columbia disintegrated during reentry in 2003.
The 2,000-car parking lot of the Udvar-Hazy Center was full by 9 a.m., and an overflow crowd camped out with blankets, coolers and folding chairs on an embankment along Route 28, cameras aimed skyward, 30 minutes before Discovery’s first appearance.
Discovery made its first pass over thousands of onlookers at the Udvar-Hazy Center as children shouted, “I see it!” and adults gasped.
Centreville resident Kyle Foster said Discovery has been his favorite shuttle since watching it launch in 1984, recalling lines of cars along the Florida coast, the night’s pitch blackness and the roar of the orbiter’s engines.
Foster took the morning off from work to witness Discovery’s arrival with his wife and 1-year-old daughter, calling it a “living piece of history.”
“It’s never gonna fly again,” said 78-year-old Edith Murray, visiting the Mall from Rhode Island.
Outside National Airport, Kristen Mitchell, 26, of Springfield, was simultaneously excited and sad, having come of age just as the shuttle program waned. “And now I’m seeing the end of it,” she said.
Just as Discovery transitions from trusty space truck to museum showpiece, NASA continues its transition phase. The 30-year space shuttle program ended last year, leaving America without the means to launch people into space for the first time since 1981. NASA now pays the Russian space agency to send American astronauts to the international space station. By 2017, NASA hopes American-built private spacecraft — financed by NASA — will take over the role of orbital taxi.
But for today, the embattled agency got to show off its space hero one last time, a 27-year-old flier whose scorched and dingy siding visually describe her duties.
“She’s old and venerable and has lots of quirks,” said former shuttle astronaut Piers Sellers, who flew on Discovery in 2006. “We had sheets of paper that said, ‘When this alarm goes off, ignore it.’ Or, ‘this fuel gauge doesn’t work.’ She just does that. She had a lot of little quirks, but her heart was solid.”
As Discovery banked around the west end of the Mall for a final pass, the battered white shuttle glowed in a shaft of sunlight, looking large and at ease — a bird with clipped wings just along for the ride.
Staff writers Rachel Karas, Jacqueline Trescott, Stefanie Dazio and Erin Williams contributed to this report.