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Delivering Discovery

The venerable space shuttle’s last trip: to the National Air and Space Museum.

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After 39 missions, 365 days in space, 5,830 orbits, and 148 million miles, the space shuttle Discovery was delivered to the National Air and Space Museum in April 2012. How do you transport one of the largest and most fragile artifacts in the world? Watch the Smithsonian Channel special on the queen of the shuttle fleet, and learn how NASA ground crews transferred Discovery to the Museum. (The full episode is now available, above.)

“When a curator is considering collecting an artifact,” says Valerie Neal, a curator in the space history division at the Museum, “there are a number of standards that are applied. The principal one is historical significance. Then we look at the nature of the object itself. Is it the only one? Is it rare? Is it the first one? Is it the last one? Discovery gets an ‘A’ on every measure.” 

Consider this: Discovery deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. Took the first Russian cosmonaut to fly on a shuttle into space. Brought John Glenn back into space 36 years after he became the first American to orbit the earth. It returned the country to flight after the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. It boasted the first female shuttle pilot—Eileen Collins on STS-63. 

The hundreds of people who worked on the space shuttle program for 30 years know her best. “Discovery is very close to my heart,” says Stephanie Stilson in the episode. Stilson was Discovery’s flow director: for 12 years she led the team that got the shuttle ready for each mission. “Discovery itself is more than just that aluminum structure and those engines and thrusters and all that. It’s a symbol of the team. It’s a symbol of our country.” 

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