We knew Discovery had arrived when the large crowd waiting on the National Mall for the historic final flypast of the iconic Space Shuttle let out a collective cheer. The spacecraft was bolted to the top of a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft Boeing 747 flying low along the Potomac River, following the flightpath familiar to Washingtonians as the regular approach for aircraft into the capital city’s Reagan National Airport.
Thousands of people were gathered to see this last flight of Discovery, en route to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum alongside Dulles International Airport in Virginia. The early morning sun was bright and many people stood in the shade of the trees alongside the grassy center of the Mall. Hundreds of families and school groups had come to witness this moment of space history.
When Discovery and its carrier came back into view the crowd again applauded. One youngster near me squealed, “This is so magic.”
The jumbo jet rumbled some 1,500 feet overhead, making a couple of giant lazy loops around the Capitol, White House, and America’s most beloved monuments. Thousands of cameras followed its every turn.
Along its way around the Mall, Discovery passed Arlington National Cemetery, where there are memorials to the crews of Challenger and Columbia, two spacecraft lost tragically during the Space Shuttle program.
Discovery flew past the Capitol a couple of times, seemingly in a nod to the Congresses that had financed the Shuttle program. And then it turned away, crossing the Potomac one last time for its final landing — and the end of a remarkable journey through space and time.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.
Photos by David Braun