CHANTILLY, Va. — Cries of "I see it!" rang out through the crowd as a speck on the horizon got bigger and bigger, resolving into the odd shape of two attached aircraft approaching. Soon it was close enough to make out space shuttle Discovery riding piggyback aboard a jumbo jet.
The shuttle and its ride zoomed overhead three times, flying low over a gathering of roughly 6,000 this morning (April 17) here at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Many had been waiting since the early morning, on picnic blankets and camp chairs, for a chance to see the well-traveled orbiter's last trip through the sky.
The veteran space shuttle launched 39 times to space before it was retired last year. Now it is coming to rest at the Smithsonian for all to see.
"Spectacular," pronounced Joseph Matos of Germantown, Md., after the shuttle's flyover. "It is an absolute privilege for Discovery to come to the museum right here." [ Photos: Shuttle Discovery Flies to Smithsonian ]
Eight-year-old Alex Corica of Carlisle, Penn., donned an orange astronaut outfit, complete with helmet, to welcome the shuttle. Likewise, Katie Castro, 11, of Woodbury, Minn., was wearing a blue astronaut flight suit with the wings she earned at Space Camp pinned on front.
"It was amazing," Castro said of Discovery's pass overhead. "Way lower than I expected it to be."
Castro, who has witnessed four shuttle launches in person, made the trip from Minnesota to Virginia just to see Discovery fly in. She's taking flying lessons of her own back home, and aspires to be a pilot or an astronaut.
Randy Finley of Chantilly, Va., brought his son Liam to celebrate his third birthday today with a view of shuttle Discovery.
"He's going to grow up with Discovery," Liam's uncle Chris Bartus told SPACE.com, adding that the family planned to bring him to the Udvar-Hazy Center often to see the orbiter. "The hope is he'll be as nutty about the space program as we are."
R. B. Haggerty of Reston, Va., had a similar idea. He brought his 15-month old son to see Discovery, despite the fact that the boy may not remember the event without prompting. "He'll look back on this when he's older," Haggerty said. "I'm just a big fan and this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
While some new space fans were likely created today, others have long felt a tie to space.
"I've grown up with the space program; it's just always meant something to me," said Dawn Root of Glen Burnie, Md. "I had to be here today."
While most locals expressed delight that the shuttle would now live nearby, some regretted that it had to be retired.
"It's a shame what they're doing," said Nick Nylec of Sterling, Va. "They should have been building more and modernizing them."
However, others said the aging shuttles' time had come.
"I can understand — it was 70s technology," John Bartus said.
You can follow SPACE.com assistant managing editor Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.