Washington DC, Apr 18: The space shuttle Discovery soared around the Washington Monument and the White House in a salute to the US capital on Tuesday before landing for the last time near its new museum home.
The world's most travelled spaceship took off at daybreak from Cape Canaveral, Florida, bolted to the top of a modified jumbo jet for the trip.
Three hours later, the pair took a few spins around Washington at an easy-to-spot 1,500-foot (450 metres) altitude before the retired shuttle was grounded for good.
Thousands of people lined the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building to get a view of the shuttle as it circled three times through partly cloudy skies, surprising onlookers each time.
The Capitol Building's balcony was loaded with people keen to get a view, others in the city stood on rooftops. Construction workers staked out prime viewing spots on cranes.
The two aircraft landed at Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia from where Discovery will be towed on Thursday to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum annex nearby.
NASA ended the shuttle programme last summer after a 30-year run to focus on destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.
Discovery, the fleet leader with 39 orbital missions, is the first of the three retired space shuttles to be turned over to a museum for display.
It first launched in 1984 and during it's working life flew nearly 149 (m) million miles (240 (m) million kilometres) before retiring last year (2011).
Terri Jacobsen from Bethesda, Maryland, described the Mall fly-by as “awe inspiring, absolutely one of the coolest things I have ever seen.”
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein, who has covered the NASA space programme for years said there was “something special about watching the shuttle that is normally in orbit or normally on the launch pad, about halfway to a third of the way up the Washington Monument.”
Joining hundreds of witnesses on the Mall, Andrew Walton tried to send his photos to Twitter, only to discover the service was over capacity.
“I'm trying to tweet a photo and it looks like Twitter is jammed, nothing will go through here,” he said.
When Discovery departed Florida's Kennedy Space Centre, nearly 2,000 people, former shuttle workers, VIPs, tourists and journalists, gathered along the old shuttle landing strip to see Discovery off.
Discovery's list of achievements include delivering the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit, carrying the first Russian cosmonaut to launch on a US spaceship, performing the first rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir with the first female shuttle pilot in the cockpit, returning Mercury astronaut John Glenn to orbit, and bringing shuttle flights back to life after the Challenger and Columbia accidents.
At the Smithsonian annex, Discovery will take the place of the shuttle prototype Enterprise.
US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood described the Discovery's arrival in Washington, as a “wow” day.
The Enterprise will go to New York City, Endeavour will head to Los Angeles in the autumn and the Atlantis shuttle will remain at the Kennedy Space Centre.
With the shuttles grounded, private US companies hope to fill the hole in the market, beginning with space station cargo and then hopefully- astronauts.
The first commercial cargo run, by Space Exploration Technologies, is set to take place in just a few weeks.
For at least the next three to five years, until commercial passenger craft are available in the United States, NASA astronauts will have to hitch multimillion-dollar rides on Russian Soyuz capsules to get to the International Space Station.