Close to 75 space enthusiasts of all ages shared a combined luxury box, 50-yard line seat at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s Whipple Field for space shuttle Discovery’s Capital Region final fly-bys and aerial encores the morning of April 17.
The 25-minute appearance of the retired Discovery rode piggy-back on its 747 jet escort above the D.C. skies. The flight culminated a 39-mission, 365 days-in-space career, which finished with a curtain-call landing at Dulles International Airport and a spot at the Smithsonian Institue’s Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in suburban Virginia.
Adrenaline rushes and escalated pulses and heart rates were the norm as tourists pried their eyes away from the likeness of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and their memorials to gaze into a partly cloudy, morning sky and toward breath-taking passes by the Discovery above the heart of the region.
“We were down here training, and we took a break because we heard this was happening,” said Fort Belvoir Staff Sgt. Raymond Rivera, 212 Military Police Attachment. “This is the first time [seeing the shuttle] for me.”
The first pass skirted JBM-HH and the National Mall area occurred at 9:55 a.m.- five minutes before the scheduled arrival of the shuttle. Subsequent low altitude, west-to-east fly-overs above Whipple Field shook the rafters of homes and drew applause from space shuttle fans who assembled on Memorial Bridge and near-by Rosslyn high-rise buildings.
Springfield resident Mary Archer attempted to chart the best place to view the Discovery fly-overs and deduced JBM-HH hills would yield the best vantage point.
“We were coming on I-95 from the south and when we did get to the exit of the Pentagon, it flew over us,” Archer said. “Then, we got by one of the [base] chapels, and we saw it again. We got by the [Whipple] Field, and it flew over again. Then we stopped and parked and we saw another fly-over.”
Another spectator was JBM-HH Historian Kim Holien, who mentioned this manned-space event, the retirement flight of Discovery, closes another chapter in American history and space exploration.
“This marks the end of the era that started in 1961 with President Kennedy launching the United States to race to the moon during the height of the Cold War,” said Holien of the once-in-a-lifetime flight. “This is the end of that era. Fifty-one years of space exploration has come full cycle.”