Image: Space shuttle Discovery atop 747
NASA / Smithsonian Institution / Dane Penland
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, at podium, speaks to those in attendance at Apron W after the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft with space shuttle Discovery mounted on top rolled to a halt at Washington Dulles International Airport, Tuesday, April 17, 2012 in Sterling, Va. NASA will transfer Discovery to the National Air and Space Museum to begin its new mission to commemorate past achievements in space.
updated 4/18/2012 12:34:02 PM ET 2012-04-18T16:34:02

The space shuttle Discovery will be hoisted off its ferry plane Wednesday in a complicated ballet of cranes.

The orbiter is currently perched atop a modified Boeing 747 jet that carried it from Florida to Virginia yesterday. The two aircraft flew from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral to the Dulles International Airport early Tuesday to deliver Discovery to the Smithsonian, where it will end its days as a museum exhibit.

Wednesday, the retired shuttle orbiter will be separated from its carrier plane in preparation for being towed to the Smithsonian's Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center here on Thursday.

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Discovery was attached to the jet, called the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, by three strong struts on the plane's fuselage. Those must be disconnected in a process called "de-mate" before the orbiter can be lifted off. [ Photos: Shuttle Discovery Flies to Smithsonian ]

Two giant steel cranes will loft Discovery into the air so that the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft can back out beneath it. Then the orbiter's landing gear wheels will be extended and the cranes will set Discovery onto the ground.

The National Air and Space Museum is planning a big "Welcome Discovery" celebration for Thursday, when the orbiter will be towed from the Dulles airport to the Udvar-Hazy Center nearby. The public is invited to the event, which will feature music, astronauts and activities for all ages starting at 8 a.m. EDT.

Discovery will be wheeled into the museum's huge hangar facility, to take its place temporarily beside its sister shuttle Enterprise. That orbiter was built as a prototype shuttle, and never made it to space. It has been on display at the Smithsonian since 2003, but now is set to be replaced by Discovery. The Enterprise will soon go on view at Manhattan's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.

The same carrier plane that transported Discovery here is set to take Enterprise to New York on April 23, weather permitting.

Of the three space shuttles that NASA retired in 2011, Discovery is the first to be sent to a museum. The other remaining flown orbiters, Endeavour and Atlantis, are due to take their places later this year at the California Science Center in Los Angeles and the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., respectively.

You can follow assistant managing editor Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Video: Discovery shuttle lands in D.C.

  1. Closed captioning of: Discovery shuttle lands in D.C.

    >>> there was something special in the skies today from florida north to washington along the east coast . it stopped traffic and it brought people out their homes and offices. it was a final farewell for the space shuttle " discovery ," latched to the top of a 747, flying around as if to waive good-bye on its way to retirement at the smithsonian. turns out " discovery " had one more mission left in it, as nbc 's anne thompson reports.

    >> reporter: " discovery 's" sentimental journey to washington began early this morning, taking off from florida's kennedy space center on the back of a 747. flying over its launch pads and beaches where generations watched its liftoffs starting in 1984 .

    >> the first flight of the orbiter " discovery ."

    >> reporter: " discovery " orbited the earth 5,830 times, logging more than 148 million miles. jay barberie has covered every manned space mission for nbc news.

    >> this is the biggest foundation of knowledge that we have built. we're 50 years ahead where we would have been had we not a space program .

    >> reporter: " discovery 's" career marked with historic moments. eileen collins flew " discovery ." john glenn the former astronaut and senator, the oldest person to fly in space did so on " discovery ." it helped build the international space station and deployed the hubble telescope . and in times of tragedy, after the disasters of the challenger and columbia, " discovery " led america back into space. it was fitting today that " discovery 's" victory lap brought together christa mcauliffe 's belief that space is for everybody.

    >> is that the coolest thing you've ever seen? yeah.

    >> ever?

    >> yeah.

    >> reporter: people looked up in awe as " discovery " flew by the monument, the capitol and the white house . a sight so spectacular it stopped traffic on the ground. drew teachers and students out of classrooms, even pilots in the air wanted to see.

    >> a 747 with a shuttle on the back is landing -- he's about 15 miles out now from the smithsonian.

    >> reporter: " discovery " landed for the final time at dulles airport , a bittersweet moment for janet cavandi.

    >> we wanted it to fly for a long time before it touched down.

    >> reporter: now " discovery " will have an earthbound role, to inspire a new generation of americans for the exciting adventure of space. anne thompson , nbc news, new

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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