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.
“It was beautiful, it was majestic,” Mr. Ponniah said, adding that he took his 13-year-old son, Gabriel, out of school to see the landing. “I’m happy but also a bit sad because it’s come to an end.”
The NASA orbiter program was shuttered after 30 years in the summer of 2011, several months after the Discovery made its final flight.
The shuttle was in service for 27 years and in that time flew 39 missions, including a 1990 mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. It also was the first shuttle to fly after the disasters that claimed Challenger upon launch in 1986 and Columbia during re-entry in 2003.
Many of Tuesday’s onlookers expressed bittersweet sentiments about the symbolic end to the space shuttle program.
Carolyn Ruby, a volunteer at the museum, called the landing “an elegant finish.”
“It was wonderful. It flew so slowly and low, so everybody had a chance to see it,” she said.
“It’s sad to see the end of an era,” said William Clendaniel, a retired Fairfax County school principal. “I was a child of the 1960s and I listened to [President Kennedy’s] inauguration speech about putting a man on the moon.”
After watching the shuttle fly directly above him, Daniel Choi, a planetary scientist with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt said the experience was “more emotional than I thought it would be.”
Hours before the shuttle made its appearance in D.C. airspace, the parking lot at the museum was cluttered with lawn chairs, blankets and coolers.
Herndon residents Pattie Kaiser, 65, and her husband, Chris, said they had been to several shuttle launches and wanted to see Tuesday’s event because - as so many others said - it was the end of an era.
“We grew up knowing the pride of achievement that seems to be drawing to a close,” Mrs. Kaiser said. “There was something personal. It was our shuttle, our program, our dream. That’s what we’re here to see.”