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The space shuttle Discovery atop another airplane.

Smoke swirls around the landing gear as the NASA airplane carrying Discovery touches down in Virginia.

Photograph by Jon Brack

A NASA technician.

Travis Thompson inside a space shuttle. Photograph by Jon Brack.

Victoria Jaggard in Chantilly, Virginia

National Geographic News

Published April 17, 2012

Despite gusting winds and excited chatter high on the observation deck at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, it was hard to miss the cheers of the crowd gathered in the parking lot the minute space shuttle Discovery came into view.

Often described as the workhorse of NASA's space shuttle fleet, because it logged the most flight hours of any shuttle, Discovery roared over the Air and Space Museum annex in Virginia this morning riding atop the back of a modified 747. (Take an Air and Space Museum quiz.)

Discovery and its carrier made an initial flyby past Udvar-Hazy, went on a whirlwind tour of the national monuments in downtown Washington, D.C., then looped back for another flyby of the museum before landing at Dulles International Airport.

(See pictures of the space shuttle soaring over D.C.)

Since the shuttles weren't designed to fly on their own, Discovery had to travel bolted to the 747 using the same attachments that once hooked the shuttle to its huge, orange external fuel tank for a launch.

Between now and Thursday, crews at the airport will "demate" the shuttle from its massive ride and prepare to roll the spaceship down the runway to take up permanent residence inside the museum April 19.

(See space shuttle Discovery in extreme detail via exclusive new pictures.)

"It's good that Discovery's come here, because it deserves a place of honor," said Travis Thompson, who until recently was the closeout crew lead for the shuttles, a position he held for almost 30 years.

"It's America's spaceship, and America deserves to enjoy it."

"Hard to Give Up Space"

Thompson was at Udvar-Hazy with colleague Ivette Jones, a former certification instructor who spent more than a decade training shuttle personnel in safety and flight systems.

After the landing, the pair wandered through museum's current displays—including a stop at the prototype orbiter Enterprise—trading stories, bantering, and wistfully reminiscing about what both would probably call the career experiences of a lifetime.

"It's hard to give up space," said Jones, who now works with helicopter training at the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.

"But being here today—it's come full circle. It's something I needed to do for personal closure," she said. "We've seen the vehicle leave for space and come back to Earth. We've seen it come alive."

(Related pictures: "Space Shuttle Discovery's Milestone Moments.")

Although welcoming Discovery to the museum was bittersweet, Jones and Thompson now hope that seeing the orbiter on display will serve to inspire the next generation of spaceflight workers.

Plus, Jones said, "I'm happy Discovery is in [the D.C. area], so anytime I get nostalgic, I can come see it."

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