We had a moment of excitement this morning when the Space Shuttle "Discovery" set atop a modified 747 jet airline flew right past my office window. Please excuse the low-quality photograph. I had only the camera on my mobile phone at the time and this was the best I could manage. Seeing it live with my own eyes was actually much more impressive. The photo makes it seem like it was further away than what I perceived in person.
Did anyone else in the 12MC audience see the shuttle as it flew by?
An escort plane accompanied the shuttle. That’s the little dark smudge at the upper-right corner of my photograph. Other sources I consulted have identified this as a T-38 Talon which is a supersonic jet trainer. I have no way of verifying that but it sounds plausible so I’ll run with it. This one appeared to have been marked as a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) jet as did the 747 carrying the shuttle.
The Discovery was one of the primary workhorses of the shuttle fleet. It completed 39 missions, spent an astounding 365 days in space, and flew between August 1984 and March 2011. Discovery has now been decommissioned along with the rest of the shuttle fleet. All of the shuttles are destined to become museum exhibits, and are likely to become instant highlights of any museum they occupy.
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That’s what brought Discovery to the skies of the Washington, DC area this morning. It took a final flyover past the Nation’s Capital and all the usual iconic monuments on its way to a final home near Dulles International Airport in the western suburbs. There it will occupy a hanger at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum – Udvar-Hazy Center. I’m sure my children will start begging me to take them there as soon as that takes place. This is their absolutely most favorite museum of all time.
The local news media did a pretty good job of making sure everyone knew about the flyover. Websites tracked the progress of the 747-Shuttle Combo as it flew up from Cape Canaveral, Florida and into the Washington area. We took a look out the window when they announced the shuttle was over the Potomac River and it appeared no more than a couple of minutes later. This was the same window I mentioned in my article "All Those Modes of Transportation." I never suspected when I wrote that article that someday I could add an amazing ninth form of transportation — a vehicle capable of flying in space and returning to earth! I was looking out this same window during the earthquake when I could see the building across the street swaying, come to think of it. I have a truly magical window on the world.
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I saw the shuttle three times and some in our group saw a forth. From our vantage point it appeared that the shuttle flew south along the river past National airport and disappeared for a moment. It looped back around, probably turning around somewhere near Alexandria. A while later it seemed to travel due east directly over the National Mall. Presumably it turned around again and that must have been the fourth pass that I didn’t see.
The Smithsonian already has a space shuttle, though. Why do they need Discovery?
The Space Shuttle "Enterprise" has been exhibited at the Udvar-Hazy Center for the past several years. I took this photograph during one of my dozen-or-so visits. It’s a nice vehicle but it doesn’t have the same pedigree inherent in the several shuttles recently retired. The Enterprise was used for test flights and it never traveled into space. The Smithsonian got a chance to grab the Discovery for their museum, and well, that was adios for the Enterprise. Its new home will be the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.
If you’d like to see some great photos (as opposed to my substandard effort) the best local coverage I’ve seen has been by the ARLnow blog: Space Shuttle Discovery Performs Final Flyover