April 17, 2012
— Space shuttle Discovery, NASA's fleet leader and the world's most flown spacecraft, landed in the nation's capital on Tuesday (April 17) where it will go on permanent display by the Smithsonian later this week.
The retired spacecraft was delivered to the nation's capital mounted to the space agency's Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet, on a final ferry flight that included an historic flyover of the National Mall and some of its nearby monuments and federal buildings.
The air- and spacecraft duo landed at Washington Dulles International Airport at 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT).
"This is a WOW day!" exclaimed Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. "That is the only way to express it. I don't know how many people said 'wow!' when they saw that beautiful Discovery flying over and coming in. This is a great day for America."
The four hour flight left the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 6:58 a.m. (1058 GMT), just after dawn. Guests at Kennedy's visitor complex and spectators along the space coast were treated to a final flyby of Discovery before the shuttle began its trip up the Eastern Seaboard.
The departure marked a final separation for Discovery and the Kennedy Space Center, which had served as the shuttle's home base and launch site since it was first delivered to the Florida spaceport atop the same carrier aircraft on Nov. 9, 1983.
In the three decades since, Discovery flew 39 missions — more than any other spacecraft in history — and logged more than a year in space. It became the first of NASA's three shuttles to be retired when it landed a final time from space on March 9, 2011.
Next stop: the Smithsonian
"It is my honor to deliver Discovery to you today for you to share this national treasure with the nation to help us tell not only the story of the past but ushering in the promise for the future," said NASA's deputy administrator Lori Garver.
Now on the ground at Dulles, Discovery — still atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft — has been moved to a remote apron at the airport where NASA pre-staged large cranes to offload the orbiter on Wednesday (April 18).
On Thursday morning, Discovery will be rolled over to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located adjacent to the airport, for a formal transfer ceremony. More than a dozen of the shuttle's former mission commanders, as well as Smithsonian and NASA officials, will take part in the public event, which will kick-off a four day "Welcome Discovery" festival at the northern Virginia museum.
By the end of the day Thursday, should all go as planned, Discovery will take its place in the Udvar-Hazy's James S. McDonnell Space Hangar as its centerpiece.
Discovery is replacing the prototype Enterprise, which had been on display at the museum since 2003. Enterprise will be flown to New York on Monday (April 23) to be displayed at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum this summer.
Leading the fleet into retirement
Discovery is the first of NASA's now retired shuttles to embark on a new mission as a museum exhibit.
In April 2011, NASA also awarded shuttle Endeavour to the California Science Center in Los Angeles and retained Atlantis for its own visitor attraction at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Endeavour will depart for the west coast in September; Atlantis is scheduled to be rolled down the road two months later in November.
Discovery was first promised by NASA to the Smithsonian in 2008. The fleet leader, Discovery spent more than 365 days in space over the course of its 39 missions, more than any other vehicle to launch and return from Earth orbit.
The third of NASA's orbiters to enter service and fly, Discovery deployed the Hubble Telescope and the Ulysses solar probe and was the first ever spacecraft to recover satellites from orbit. It also returned the shuttle program to flight after the losses of Challenger and Columbia in 1986 and 2003, respectively.
Discovery was also the first space shuttle to visit the International Space Station and delivered its largest laboratory, among other components.