The space shuttle Discovery received a rousing welcome Thursday as it was officially unveiled at its new home at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Discovery, NASA's most travelled space shuttle, was greeted by huge crowds of visitors as it arrived at the museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., Thursday, accompanied by astronauts who once rode it into space and music from the U.S. marines' drum and bugle corps.

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The space shuttle Discovery was suspended from a sling held by two cranes Thursday after being separated from the jumbo jet that carried it to Washington Dulles International Airport. (Bill Ingalls/NASA/Associated Press)

Discovery was retired from service last year, along with its sister shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour, when NASA ended its 30-year shuttle program.

On Tuesday, Discovery was carried piggyback on a Boeing 747 jet from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Washington Dulles International Airport in Sterling, Va. — its final flight after logging nearly 240 million kilometres over 39 orbital missions.

On Thursday morning, Discovery was met nose-to-nose by the Enterprise, a space shuttle prototype that NASA used for test flights on Earth but that never went into space.

Discovery is taking the place of Enterprise at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Enterprise had been there since the centre opened in 2003, but is moving to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York on Monday.

Endeavour will go on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, while Atlantis will remain at the Kennedy Space Center.

Smithsonian curator Valerie Neal told the Associated Press that the top question museum visitors have been asking about Discovery is whether they will be able to walk inside or see the flight deck.

"We don't permit that here because we treat all of the aircraft and spacecraft as artifacts, not as exhibit props," she said. Allowing people to walk inside would require cutting a bigger hatch, among other modifications.

"To make the shuttle accessible to the public, we would have to damage it, and we just do not want to do that," Neal said.

Instead, the museum has created 360-degree interactive pictures of Discovery's flight deck and mid deck. Soon there will also be images of the payload bay accessible at kiosks near where Discovery will be displayed. That will allow visitors to have a view from the commander's seat and then float through the various compartments to explore the shuttle.

A companion exhibit at the museum on the National Mall will include a model of Discovery's mid deck where visitors can climb inside and see a shuttle toilet (think vacuum cleaner) and other features.

With files from the Associated Press