Viewport: Champion of the Fleet
Discovery takes a victory lap before settling in at the National Air and Space Museum.
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, July 2012
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the June/July 2012 issue of Air & Space.
On April 19, after a journey of 148,221,675 miles, NASA’s hardest-working space shuttle, Discovery, came to the National Air and Space Museum to embark on its new mission: inspiring the next generation of space explorers. Discovery now occupies a place of honor among hundreds of space artifacts in a collection started in 1960, when NASA and the Smithsonian Institution began working together to safeguard and make accessible the historic objects of the U.S. space program. We welcomed the space shuttle to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia with a weekend-long celebration and with the knowledge that although the Museum is Discovery’s caretaker, this remarkable spacecraft belongs to all of us.
That fact was made clear by the reception Discovery got when the 747 bringing it to us flew it on a victory lap around the National Mall and the Washington, D.C. area. Throughout the city and in nearby Maryland and Virginia, people stopped what they were doing, went outside, found viewing places on hills and rooftops, and cheered this piece of history on its final journey (see “What’s Up.”)
Discovery certainly deserves the attention. In its 27-year career, it launched the Hubble Space Telescope and twice flew astronauts back to Hubble for servicing missions. It was the first orbiter to dock with the Russian space station Mir and the first spacecraft to retrieve a satellite from orbit. It also helped build the International Space Station.
Discovery carried 246 people into orbit, more than any other shuttle. Among its passengers was Senator John Glenn, who, along with 15 Discovery commanders and many crew members, joined us at the ceremony to welcome the shuttle to the Museum. In 1998, Discovery enabled Glenn, at age 77, to become the oldest astronaut to fly in space. That was his second trip to orbit; his first was America’s first, and at the National Air and Space Museum, we have that first spacecraft too. You can see the Mercury Friendship 7 capsule at the Museum on the National Mall.
Because so many astronauts—men and women, from many countries—realized their dreams of spaceflight on Discovery, it carries a powerful message for young people. At our April ceremony, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough put it this way: “No matter where you are from, with hard work and dedication, by learning math, science, and engineering, you too might travel to the stars.”
NASA spent months safeguarding this shuttle and preparing it for exhibit, and we at the Museum worked hard to get its place ready. Now it’s up to you. Come see this engineering marvel, or visit the California Science Center in Los Angeles to see Endeavour, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to visit Atlantis, or the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City to see Enterprise. Learn more and continue the conversation about this great fleet, which for 30 years led the world in space exploration.