After three decades of space service, NASA's oldest and most traveled shuttle, Discovery, began its new life as a museum relic Tuesday with one final takeoff, The Associated Press has reported.

Discovery departed Florida's Kennedy Space Center at daybreak Tuesday aboard a modified jumbo jet bound for Washington, where it will become a Smithsonian exhibit.

Nearly 2,000 people - former shuttle workers, VIPs, tourists and journalists - gathered along the old shuttle landing strip to see Discovery off.

The plane and shuttle headed south and made one last flight over the beaches of Cape Canaveral - thousands jammed the shore for a glimpse of Discovery - then returned to the space center in a final salute.

A similar flyover was planned over the monuments in the nation's capital, later in the morning.

Discovery - the fleet leader with 39 space missions - is the first of the three retired space shuttles to head to a museum. It will go on display at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, taking the place of the shuttle prototype Enterprise. The Enterprise will go to New York City.

Endeavour will head to Los Angeles this fall. Atlantis will remain at Kennedy.

NASA ended the shuttle program last summer after a 30-year run to focus on destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.