Dramatic last flight for Discovery space shuttle

Piggybacking aboard a Boeing 747, the space shuttle Discovery made a dramatic flyover of Washington Tuesday before touching down near its final resting place, a museum outside the US capital.

Riding atop a modified plane kept by NASA specifically for transporting space shuttles, Discovery lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, just after sunrise for its last journey in the skies.

Then the shuttle, which first flew in 1984, circled over the US capital for about an hour before landing at Dulles International Airport as crowds whistled and cheered, and some onlookers fought back tears.

Tourists wearing shorts on a sunny spring day gathered along the National Mall near the Washington Monument, staring skyward to catch a glimpse of the storied white and black shuttle, which appeared scuffed and grubby from its 39 journeys into space.

Office workers clustered at windows or climbed onto rooftops to see the aircraft and shuttle as they soared low over the US capital's historic landmarks.

Outside the Pentagon, a throng of military officers and civilian employees watched the shuttle fly a final time, reveling and applauding as it made two low passes over the building, escorted by a T-38 fighter jet.

Traffic slowed on some of Washington's major roadways as drivers pulled over to gape at the skies, according to some shuttle spotters who reported what they were seeing on the microblogging site Twitter.

"It's like sending someone from your family to go live somewhere else," said NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, a mission specialist on Discovery's final flight, STS-133.

"Discovery's leaving home and starting a new life."

A ceremony to mark the official induction of the Discovery will be held on Thursday at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, outside the US capital in suburban Chantilly, Virginia.

Discovery flew its last mission to space in February and March of last year, on a 13-day trip to the International Space Station.

It is the oldest and most traveled craft in the US collection of three space-flying shuttles -- also including Endeavour and Atlantis -- and one prototype, the Enterprise, which never flew in space.

Two other shuttles were destroyed in flight. Challenger disintegrated shortly after liftoff in 1986 and Columbia broke apart on re-entry to Earth in 2003. Both disasters killed everyone on board.

Discovery spent a total of 365 days in space, and flew nearly 149 million miles (241 million kilometers), NASA's mission control said.

Discovery was the first of the three shuttles to retire last year. Endeavour began its final trip to space in April and the 30-year US program ended after Atlantis returned to Earth for the last time in July 2011.

Russia is now the only nation capable of sending astronauts to space aboard its Soyuz capsules.

Private US companies are competing to be the first to fill the gap left by the shuttles' retirement, with SpaceX set to attempt its first unmanned cargo mission to the ISS on April 30.

A flyover by the shuttle Enterprise is set for April 23 over New York City, NASA said.

The Enterprise, which had been a centerpiece attraction at the Udvar-Hazy Center, part of the Smithsonian museums, until Discovery was assigned to take its place, will pass by the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks, NASA said.

Enterprise is to go on display at New York's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.

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