Shuttle Discovery takes victory laps over D.C.

The space shuttle Discovery, mounted atop a NASA 747, flies over the Washington Monument, as seen from a NASA T-38 aircraft Tuesday. Discovery, the longest-serving orbiter, is headed to its new home, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.  See a photo gallery at www.theday.com.
The space shuttle Discovery, mounted atop a NASA 747, flies over the Washington Monument, as seen from a NASA T-38 aircraft Tuesday. Discovery, the longest-serving orbiter, is headed to its new home, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. See a photo gallery at www.theday.com. Robert Markowitz, NASA/AP Photo

Washington - 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 before 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 locations. Tourists outside the Smithsonian museums pointed and gawked. At Dulles, 400 people gathered on a parking garage roof.

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 cell phones 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 and Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va, - 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.

Clear skies along the East Coast put NASA's pilots 10 minutes ahead of schedule after an early morning lift-off 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 and flapping American flag.

Ten minutes later, the piggybacked pair winked into view against gray clouds above the Potomac River, zooming past 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 Washington, wiping away tears as Discovery zoomed over Memorial Bridge with a barely audible "whoosh."

On the Mall, cheers, whoops and hollers went up as the tandem flew low.

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