Space Shuttle Discovery, the NASA orbiter that spent a year’s worth of time among the stars, completed its final journey Tuesday when it landed at Washington Dulles International Airport on the back of a Boeing 747.
Blunt-nosed and blemished, the worn spacecraft atop the jumbo jet elicited cheers from a crowd of thousands gathered around the airport to catch a glimpse of a moment in history.
“When are you ever going to see something like that again?” asked Daniel Pallotta, a Boston resident who drove down with his son to watch the shuttle landing. “You’re not. This was awe-inspiring.”
The Discovery, NASA’s longest-serving shuttle, traveled from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to its new permanent home at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly.
Within hours of its landing, the 75-ton, 184-foot-long shuttle was moved to a secure location where crews worked to decouple it from the jet and prepare it for its close-up with its sister shuttle, Enterprise.
On Thursday, officials plan to face the two shuttles nose to nose before Discovery moves into the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar attached to the museum.
The Enterprise, which never went into space, is set to become the shuttle-in-residence at New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
A public ceremony to commemorate the switch is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday and will includes a speech by astronaut and former Ohio Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth who flew on Discovery at the age of 77. Half of the Discovery’s 31 living commanders also will be there.
The space shuttle passed low over the Washington area for about an hour Tuesday before landing at Dulles shortly after 11 a.m., drawing spectators to gathering spots atop buildings, along the Mall, and along the Potomac River.
Motorists on the Capital Beltway and many other highways pulled over to watch as Discovery circled overhead, causing traffic jams in several spots, officials said.
“They had a lot of folks just stopping in various places,” said Cpl. Anthony Washington of the Maryland State Police barrack in Forestville. “It just seemed to be pretty chaotic today.”
No serious accidents were reported, but state police got calls for a number of fender benders and troopers responded to several jammed areas to help get traffic moving again, he said.
Sathibalan Ponniah, a Bethesda-based scientific director for the Cancer Vaccine Development Program, said the landing was “more than what I expected.
“I had goose bumps,” he said as he made his way back to his car after watching the plane descend to the Dulles tarmac.