The Space Shuttle Discovery, which in its 27 years logged more than 148 million miles, regularly withstood 3,000-degree temperatures and circled the Earth more than 5,000 times, finally came to rest on Thursday.
NASA’s longest-serving orbiter took its place in its permanent new home at about 4:45 p.m. in the cavernous James S. McDonnell Space Hangar of the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, where its sister shuttle Enterprise had watched over aviation history since 2004.
“The Discovery was the most intricate, complex machine man has ever built,” said John Glenn, a former astronaut and a former senator from Ohio, who traveled aboard Discovery in 1998 at 77 years old - the oldest man in space. “It’s a testament to our time.”
Mr. Glenn was one of dozens of astronauts, NASA and Smithsonian officials, and thousands of space-program enthusiasts who came to the center to welcome the newest exhibit and bid farewell to its sibling.
“It’s hard to see the Enterprise go,” Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said. “She’s been an incredible friend and an inspiration unto herself. But we can’t keep all the good things here.”
The Enterprise rolled out of the hangar at about 7:15 a.m. and waited through a foggy morning before its sister ship joined it for the ceremony.
“This brings me back to when I was a kid and watched the Apollos launch,” Andrea Seiger, a 48-year-old Northwest D.C. resident, said. “This is a cool opportunity.”
Thousands of cameras clicked as attending astronauts in their bright blue jumpsuits waved to the crowd and admired the two shuttles, both of which contributed in their own way to the manned space program.
While the Enterprise did not enter space, it was used as a testing vehicle for later shuttle missions, including the Discovery, which completed 39 missions, of which 13 were to the International Space Station.
“Without the shuttle there would be no space station,” NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. said. “The shuttles were extraordinary vehicles.”
Discovery also launched the Hubble Telescope, carried the first female and black shuttle commanders and made NASA’s return-to-flight missions after the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia disasters.
Mr. Glenn credited the Discovery as not only “the star” among NASA’s fleet of shuttles, but also as a “plain, flat-out truck,” due to all the missions it flew that required hauling equipment into space.
“Today, the new mission is less dynamic perhaps,” Mr. Glenn said, “but it’s just as important: serve as an inspiration for future generations, a symbol for the nation.”
For a time, the shuttles were positioned nose to nose. At about 4 p.m., officials began towing Discovery into place - a process that took about two hours after it was repositioned several times inside the hangar.
As he gazed up at the discolored, scuffed exterior of his newest tenant, National Air and Space Museum Director Gen. John R. “Jack” Dailey considered his newest tenant and the one he’ll have to bid farewell.
“She’s beautiful in a rugged way,” Gen. Dailey said. “We shed a tear for the Enterprise. It’s not like we were glad to see her go.”