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Shuttle Discovery draws fans on its final flight

An aerial art show pulled thousands of Washingtonians out of their offices, vehicles and homes Tuesday morning as NASA's space shuttle Discovery blew into town atop a modified 747, the battered space veteran taking a final victory jaunt before landing at Dulles International Airport.

After landing at Dulles, the shuttle was to undergo final preparations to go on display Thursday at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum annex near the airport.

A quiet retirement awaits Discovery, which blasted into space 39 times -- more than any other NASA spacecraft -- as it transitions from rumbling launchpad hero to silent museum piece.

Before rolling to a stop, the visibly singed and scarred craft provided a final bit of space theater: A 45-minute fly-around that sent an icon of American exceptionalism soaring over other iconic sights: the dome of the Capitol, the White House Rose Garden, the tip of the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian's original Air and Space Museum.

It was a photo op to remember for the tens of thousands of viewers gathered on the Mall, atop parking garages and office buildings, on bridges and bike paths and hundreds of other locations. Tourists outside the Smithsonian museums pointed and gawked. At Dulles, 400 people gathered on a parking garage roof from as far as Pittsburgh and North Carolina.

It was a neck-craning spectacle brought to you by NASA, which lobbied for -- and received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service and other agencies for the flyover, which repeatedly brought the mammoth pair into restricted air space.

An FAA official rode shotgun on NASA's modified 747 and granted the flight team real-time permission for three zippy laps over the Mall -- two more than originally planned.

After the first pass, a crowd near the Smithsonian Castle chanted for an encore: This was a rock concert for space fans.

"I wanted everyone to put down their cellphones and cameras and just look at the thing with their own eyes," said Meghan Gordon, who ran out of her office just in time. "It gave me chills."

There were costumes, there were cheers, and of course there were tears.

At the National Air and Space Museum and Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. -- Discovery's new home -- Alex Corica, 8, wandered the parking lot wearing an orange shuttle flight suit and a helmet too large to fit his head. He was ready not just to witness, but to fly.

With no more moon shots, no more shuttle missions and no human space launches of any kind from American soil these days, some parents still found a way to give their children a special space moment.

Earlier, the piggybacked pair winked into view against gray clouds above the Potomac River, zooming past National Airport before banking left, circling behind the Capitol and making the first of three runs down the Mall.

"That is just so wow," said Martha Taft, of Washington, wiping away tears as Discovery zoomed over Memorial Bridge with a barely audible "whoosh."

On the Mall, cheers, whoops and hollers went up as the tandem aircraft flew low.

The shuttle then crossed the Potomac, over Arlington National Cemetery and the graves of five astronauts killed in the two space shuttle tragedies. Richard Scobee and Michael Smith died aboard Challenger in 1986, and David M. Brown, Laurel Blair Salton Clark and Michael Anderson perished when Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in 2003.

"We pledge to take care of her forever," said retired Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey, the museum's director.