Before landing at a museum, Discovery may give folks in the D.C. area quite a show.
After 39 trips to space, NASA's oldest surviving shuttle is making one more flight, to its retirement home, the Smithsonian Institution's cavernous Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington's Dulles International Airport.
Before landing, NASA plans to show off the retired shuttle in a spectacular flyover visible to much of the region.
Weather permitting, Discovery and its carrier 747 will depart Kennedy Space Center in Florida around 7 a.m. on Tuesday and arrive in the Washington area around 10 a.m. for a 40-minute aerial tour.
NASA and National Air and Space Museum officials refused to release full details of the flight path, citing security concerns. One NASA official, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak, acknowledged that keeping the flight path secret would lessen the number of viewers who duck outside for the historic sight.
At the same time, the museum mounted a Twitter campaign to encourage area residents to spot the shuttle and Tweet photos of it with the hashtag #spottheshuttle. To play, viewers must be willing and able to hang around outside for nearly an hour midmorning Tuesday. That's because the 747 will be zooming by very quickly.
NASA did release a list of locations the plane was scheduled to fly near or over, including much of the Potomac River in the District of Columbia, Ronald Reagan National Airport, National Harbor, the U.S. Capitol, the Mall, Andrews Air Force Base and much of the Capital Beltway on the Maryland side.
Except for a few swoops, the 747 will cruise at 1,500 feet, high enough so it isn't looming like a menace.
NASA's flight crew may cancel or modify the extraordinary fly-around at any time. Rain or wind could stop the show, sending the behemoth duo to an early landing.
After a NASA crew hoists Discovery off its carrier 747, they'll tow the shuttle to the Udvar-Hazy Center for an all-day celebration on Thursday. A public ceremony will feature 14 of Discovery's commanders, former astronaut and Ohio Sen. John Glenn, and music by the U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps.
After the ceremony, visitors can see Discovery and the Smithsonian's current shuttle, the prototype Enterprise, nose-to-nose outside the museum until Discovery is rolled into its retirement home, the museum's James S. McDonnell Space Hangar.
When you're one of the world's most famous museums taking possession of the world's most famous spaceship, the first question is also the biggest: how to display it.
For Valerie Neal, curator of human spaceflight at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the answer was simple: Present the space shuttle as if it had just landed, gear down, payload doors closed, underbelly scorched.
The shuttle's 20,000 black heat shield tiles are scorched, chipped and cracked; some look as if they have been baked into briquettes. (Many of the tiles would have been replaced had Discovery flown again.)
"Discovery tells its own story by the way it looks," said Neal, who has been planning this moment for 23 years, when she left her writing job with the still-new shuttle program at NASA to work at the museum.