Discovery flies for last time, ends chapter in aerospace history

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) — After almost 27 years and 39 flights in Earth’s orbit, the space shut­tle Dis­cov­ery arrived at Dulles Air­port in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., April 17 on its way to its final rest­ing place.

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Corey Par­rish, photo/Bobby Jones)
Click to enlarge

The last moments in the air for Dis­cov­ery began at Kennedy Space Cen­ter, Fla., mount­ed on top of a mod­i­fied Boe­ing 747. The retired space­craft will take final res­i­dence in a hangar at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Cen­ter April 19, in Chan­til­ly, Va. 

At its new home, Dis­cov­ery will stand on the same spot the shut­tle Enter­prise occu­pied since the center’s open­ing in 2003, accord­ing to Dr. Valerie Neal, the cura­tor at the Nation­al Air and Space Muse­um. Unlike Dis­cov­ery, Enter­prise was only a test vehi­cle and was nev­er used for space flight, mak­ing it a less sig­nif­i­cant arti­fact to experts. There­fore, it was moved to the Intre­pid Sea, Air and Space Muse­um in New York. 

On duty since 1984, Dis­cov­ery was the third orbiter that was built and is now the old­est shut­tle remain­ing in the fleet. 

“Because it start­ed ser­vice so ear­ly, it flew all dif­fer­ent types of mis­sions shut­tles were assigned,” said Neal. “In our view, it’s the cham­pi­on of the shut­tle fleet and real­ly helps tell the sto­ry of the shut­tle era.” 

Most vis­i­tors will be shocked by the immense size of the orbiter, which on TV often seemed dwarfed by its exter­nal tank and boost­er rock­ets, Neal said. Oth­ers may won­der about the shuttle’s out­er con­di­tion. Its exte­ri­or is well worn and the black tiles of its heat shield show the scars that earth’s atmos­phere inflicted. 

“We asked NASA not to clean the exte­ri­or or repaint it,” Neal said. “We want­ed Dis­cov­ery to be as it was after it flew its last mission.” 

Changes to the orbiters were minor, Neal said, but includ­ed required dein­stal­la­tion of maneu­ver­ing pods, which con­tained traces of haz­ardous fuels, and the removal of the shuttle’s main engines, which NASA is plan­ning to reuse in the future. 

As the shut­tle takes its place among the Eno­la Gay and oth­er icon­ic air­craft, it also puts a close to a chap­ter of Air Force history. 

“The inten­tion in the 1970s was to put all mis­sions, civ­il and mil­i­tary, on the shut­tle once it became oper­a­tional,” said Rick Stur­de­vant, the deputy direc­tor of his­to­ry at the Air Force Space Com­mand. “It was sup­posed to become the only launch vehi­cle for the U.S., but a lot of Air Force per­son­nel doubt­ed it was a good idea to put all of our eggs in one basket.” 

“How­ev­er, as the shut­tle approached, Air Force plan­ning inten­si­fied with the con­struc­tion of a shut­tle launch com­plex at Van­den­berg Air Force Base, Calif., and a Shut­tle Oper­a­tions and Plan­ning Cen­ter at Shriev­er Air Force Base, Colo.,” Stur­de­vant said. “One of the pri­ma­ry rea­sons for the cre­ation of what was lat­er to become Air Force Space Com­mand was the inten­tion of admin­is­trat­ing and plan­ning shut­tle oper­a­tions for the Depart­ment of Defense.” 

While much of these instal­la­tions were nev­er used to full capac­i­ty, the Air Force pro­vid­ed ser­vices, such as range sup­port dur­ing launch­es and track­ing of orbital debris in pro­tec­tion of the shuttle. 

Stur­de­vant said he believes the shut­tle caused Air Force lead­er­ship to think more oper­a­tional­ly about space and what the Air Force could do to use space in sup­port of war-fight­ing capa­bil­i­ties. The shut­tle was sup­posed to become essen­tial in trans­port­ing those war-fight­ing assets into orbit. 

“For 30 years, it was the pre­mier aero­space vehi­cle in the world,” said Tom Jones, a for­mer shut­tle pilot. “It was the most com­plex machine ever built and had capa­bil­i­ties in space that have yet to be matched, thir­ty years after it came onto the scene.” 

The shut­tle estab­lished a sem­blance of rou­tine space flight, Neal said. Space flight seemed like it was no longer going to be extra­or­di­nary, but that it was becom­ing a nor­mal enter­prise of the Unit­ed States. 

Two of the orig­i­nal­ly five sis­ter-ships were destroyed dur­ing oper­a­tions. In 1986, Chal­lenger explod­ed short­ly after take-off, and in 2003, Colum­bia was torn apart dur­ing re-entry into earth’s atmos­phere. Dur­ing both acci­dents, all sev­en crew mem­bers were lost. 

“In many ways, the orbiter left a bit­ter taste in the mouth of many senior Air Force offi­cials,” said Dwayne Day, a senior pro­gram offi­cer with the Nation­al Research Coun­cil. “It helped devel­op a num­ber of impor­tant tech­nolo­gies, and deliv­ered numer­ous impor­tant sci­en­tif­ic and nation­al secu­ri­ty payloads.” 

But the mil­i­tary did not get as much out of the pro­gram as hoped, and stopped DoD shut­tle oper­a­tions after the Chal­lenger tragedy. 

“Peo­ple died in very pub­lic ways,” said Day, who worked on the Colum­bia acci­dent inves­ti­ga­tion board in 2003. “There were no ejec­tion seats, no escape pods,” Day said. ” If the vehi­cle was dam­aged, the crew was doomed. It was a bad situation.” 

“The shut­tle edu­cat­ed the mil­i­tary about hav­ing a dis­trib­uted way of get­ting into orbit,” said Jones. “Chal­lenger only exposed the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of hav­ing only one way of get­ting your pay­loads into space.” 

The Air Force quick­ly respond­ed and broad­ened its base, said Jones. 

“What the orbiter did gain for the mil­i­tary was cut­ting-edge expe­ri­ence on human oper­a­tions in space,” explained Jones. “Now, with the clas­si­fied X 37, which is sort of a deriv­a­tive of the shut­tle, the Air Force is tak­ing full advan­tage of the lessons learned.” 

It took a lot more main­te­nance than was antic­i­pat­ed, said Neal, and main­te­nance took a long time in between flights, so the shut­tle nev­er deployed as rou­tine­ly as desired. 

“It was a very expen­sive vehi­cle,” said Day. “It was so expen­sive that it made it dif­fi­cult to find fund­ing to devel­op a replace­ment vehicle.” 

Retired Air Force Col. John Casper, a for­mer shut­tle pilot, said the shut­tle last­ing lega­cy will be its con­tri­bu­tion to build­ing the Inter­na­tion­al Space Station. 

“Six­teen dif­fer­ent nations are involved, form­ing what is often called the largest inter­na­tion­al pro­gram since the coop­er­a­tion of the Allies in WWII,” said Casper. “Anoth­er lega­cy is the Hub­ble Space tele­scope, which the shut­tle car­ried into orbit.” 

For Casper, the tran­si­tion, from an Air Force squadron to the astro­naut corps, was an easy one. 

“There is real joy in work­ing as a team and expe­ri­ence tremen­dous team­work with peo­ple that are very ded­i­cat­ed, very much like it was the Air Force,” said Casper about shut­tle crews. “It was a tal­ent­ed, edu­cat­ed and dis­ci­plined team, that was very pas­sion­ate about what they do.” 

Like many mis­sions in the Air Force, shut­tle oper­a­tions called for pre­ci­sion, pro­fes­sion­al­ism and com­plete immer­sion in the job, said Jones. 

Mem­o­ries of expe­ri­ences with the shut­tles will always stay with the astro­nauts, they said. 

“To look down onto our home — this great, beau­ti­ful plan­et — was very ful­fill­ing,” said Jones. “It is so love­ly that tears came to your eyes when you get a chance to reflect upon what you are seeing.” 

For Casper, fly­ing the shut­tle was unlike any­thing pos­si­ble on earth. 

“The shut­tle was not like a fight­er. The only time you real­ly flew it like a plane was the land­ing,” said Casper. “And then it could only glide back to earth. There was no way to try the land­ing again — you only got one chance.” 

After the Colum­bia acci­dent, Casper became NASA’s Mishap Inves­ti­ga­tion Team’s deputy for the debris recov­ery oper­a­tion. While the nation was in shock, he said he lost friends. 

“The com­mu­ni­ty of astro­nauts is very small. We all know each oth­er. Some even flew togeth­er in the Air Force,” said Casper. “I guess it was also in the Air Force that you find out what hap­pened, try to cor­rect the prob­lem and get back to the mission.” 

“You can’t let it stop you,” said Casper. “You can’t stop fly­ing planes in the Air Force and you can’t stop explor­ing in space.” 

But the shut­tle mis­sion is over and new tech­nol­o­gy is need­ed to move onto big­ger and bet­ter things, said Casper. But a cer­tain sad­ness remains for the astro­naut and space enthu­si­asts alike. 

“Most shut­tles have about 25 to 35 flights,” said Casper. “But they were built for 100 flights each. So they’re in pris­tine shape.” 

Think­ing that the shut­tles were old and decrepit is a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion, said Neal. 

“The fleet has, in fact, been con­stant­ly updat­ed, to the point that the shut­tles that flew in 2011 were hard­ly the same as in 1984,” said Neal. “It was the same air­frame, but a lot of the tech­nol­o­gy inside was new,” said Neal. 

For Casper, now an assis­tant for pro­gram inte­gra­tion for NASA’s Ori­on pro­gram, a strong space pro­gram is an essen­tial polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary tool of the future, he said. “Ven­tur­ing into space is a demon­stra­tion to the world that we have the abil­i­ty and the will to do so,” he said. “It is a nec­es­sary exten­sion of aero­space pow­er and the Air Force’s mission.” 

One impor­tant mis­sion for the shut­tle will con­tin­ue even at the muse­um — it will con­tin­ue to inspire. 

“See­ing the U.S. Flag hang­ing on the hangar wall behind the shut­tle, just like it did when it was in its assem­bly and ser­vic­ing hangar, you real­ize that the shut­tle is an icon for the Unit­ed States,” Neal said. 

Neal’s team want­ed to make the arrival at the muse­um as acces­si­ble as pos­si­ble, she said. The trans­fer from NASA was free to the muse­um and see­ing the shut­tle will be free to the pub­lic ‑after all it was the pub­lic that has sup­port­ed and financed the shut­tle pro­gram all along, Neal insisted. 

“This is the space­craft of your gen­er­a­tion, it is an Amer­i­can icon.” said Neal. “If you nev­er made it to a launch or land­ing, you real­ly owe it to your­self to see how the U.S. went into space dur­ing your life­time. Come and take pride and own­er­ship in it.” 

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Cen­ter is locat­ed a few miles south of Wash­ing­ton Dulles Inter­na­tion­al Air­port in Chan­til­ly, Vir­ginia. It is open from 10:00 am — 5:30 pm sev­en days a week, with the excep­tion of Christ­mas Day. Admis­sion is free, park­ing is avail­able for a $15 fee. 

U.S. Air Force 

Team GlobDef

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