Throughout the three decades of the Space Shuttle program, I never got to see one launch from Cape Canaveral. I watched them launch on television and online, and would try to watch the landings when they didn’t happen in the middle of the night. A few weeks ago when I found out that Shuttle Discovery was arriving in Washington, I knew I wanted to see it. Originally I thought about taking the day off work to go out to the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport (Discovery’s new retirement home) to watch the landing. Last week, though, when I learned about NASA’s Spot the Shuttle plan for the region, I decided to head down to the National Mall instead.
The shuttle was mounted atop its modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. It did four passes over the Mall over the course of about forty five minutes, starting shortly before 10 o’clock. On the first pass it flew in low out of the northwest and over the Lincoln Memorial, following the Potomac River.
It flew south downriver and disappeared for a while before reappearing to the east, flying north above the U.S. Capitol and making a circuit around the Mall, past the White House and back over the Lincoln Memorial before descending for a low pass along the entire length of the Mall. It was incredible.
There were various responses to seeing Discovery. Many people clapped. Children were squealing with excitement. There were plenty of sighs and tears. The Washington Post reported the reactions of several viewers, including one that I stole for a title. Some D standing nearby made a snarky comment about our tax dollars hard at work, so let me counter: thank you NASA! This was *so* cool!
My favorite reaction of the day came from a dear friend of mine who texted me shortly after 10am. “Are you out shuttle-watching — if so, where?” she wrote. Then moments later, “Holy f&*k it just went right by my window. Stupendous!”
Discovery circled back around over much of Northwest DC before once again banking toward the Mall for its final pass.
The first three times it flew over I, along with everyone else, was busy snapping photographs. As it lined up with the Lincoln Memorial for its fourth pass, though, I put my camera away. This is the last shot I took.
After that I just watched. The whole thing was incredibly moving. And though I am glad I got the pictures that I did, being able to just stare at it while it flew so low overhead and soared past us a final time was worth something else, something the photos can’t quite convey.