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Discovery takes a few victory laps

– The space shuttle Discovery went out in high-flying style.

After three spectacular spins above the nation’s capital, the world’s most traveled spaceship completed its final flight and was ready to become a grounded museum relic.

But what an exit. Discovery took victory laps around the White House, the Capitol and the Washington Monument that elicited cheers and awe – the same sounds and emotions that used to accompany every thunderous launch.

Bolted to the top of a modified jumbo jet, the shuttle took off at daybreak Tuesday from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Three hours later, the combo took a few final swoops around Washington at an easy-to-spot 1,500-foot altitude.

“It was pretty amazing,” said 12-year-old Riley Jacobsen of Bethesda, Md.

People filled the Capitol balcony and stood on rooftops to catch a glimpse of Discovery. Construction workers staked out prime viewing spots on cranes.

The nostalgia extended to the crew at the controls of the 747.

“The sad part is we’re retiring a very well-oiled machine,” pilot Bill Rieke said.

After landing at Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, the shuttle will undergo final preparations to go on display Thursday at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum annex near the airport.

NASA ended the shuttle program last summer after 30 years to focus on destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Discovery led the fleet with 39 orbital missions.

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