After a few false alarms caused by jets leaving Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the crowd was finally rewarded with a view of the low-flying 747, piggybacking Space Shuttle Discovery, en route to a Smithsonian hangar. Cheers erupted through the jammed road and park in front of the White House.
The carrier roared across the sky, doing laps of the National Mall. iPhones and digital cameras whirred in its wake.
Spectators crowded on rooftops in the District, while VIPs watched from the top of the Oval Office, among the snipers.
Steps away from the White House fence, a peace protestor kept up the vigil that has been going since 1981. That is three years before Discovery’s maiden voyage.
Today’s event was especially poignant for me, because I grew up a space nut, a proud member of Young Astronauts who collected mission patches and stayed up all night to watch Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune.
I remember when Challenger exploded, and I was so excited that shuttle missions resumed years later that I wore a flight suit to school (yes I was bullied).
My aunt was the first woman to work in Mission Control, and my uncle was a navigator in Houston.
Although the future of manned spaceflights is uncertain, it’s hard to underestimate the interest in science that the various programs have generated. And when it comes down to it, I can think of few things more valuable than supporting science research.
Part of the scene in front of the White House during the flyover. Don’t look too closely at the protestor’s sign, or your head will hurt.
Brian Clark Howard is a writer and editor with NationalGeographic.com. He was formerly an editor at The Daily Green and E/The Environmental Magazine and has contributed to many publications, including TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, MailOnline.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN and elsewhere. His latest book, with Kevin Shea, is Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.