Shuttle Discovery’s Last Mission

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Shuttle Discovery’s Last Mission

Part of the Smithsonian Channel’s “Space Day Special” stunt.

NASA needed a way to get satellites and astronauts into space using a reusable vehicle. Their answer was the space shuttle program.

The term space shuttle is used interchangeably with space shuttle orbiter. However, space shuttles have three parts: Two solid-rocket-boosters, an external tank, and an orbiter. The orbiter itself is 37 meters long and 24 meters wide. A mission typically lasted 1-2 weeks in space, consisting of seven astronauts and payloads.

Space Shuttle Discovery is 3rd space-worthy shuttle orbiter to be built by NASA. Of all six shuttle orbiters built, Discovery completed the most missions (39 of 135) and was in service for the lengthiest time (27 of the 30 years). It is NASA’s longest-serving crewed spacecraft.

The most famous of Discovery’s payloads include the Hubble Space Telescope. Discovery flew both of NASA’s “return to flight” missions after the Columbia and Challenger disasters. It also launched the oldest astronaut into space (the United States Senator John Glenn, 77 years old). After an upgrade, it even docked with the International Space Station a few times.

To honour and preserve Discovery, the Smithsonian had it delivered to their National Space Museum to be viewed by the public. Getting the fragile spacecraft from Florida to DC (over 350 km) in one piece, however, was a full-blown mission in itself.

When space shuttle orbiters re-enter the atmosphere, they glide from space till onto the runway. They can’t fly. The only way to get it airborne without solid-rocket-boosters is by having it sit on top of another plane. Thankfully, NASA has a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet to get the job done.

Shuttle Discovery’s Last Mission tells the story of the logistical and engineering solutions that went into this mission and the people behind it.

Friday at 3 PM on Smithsonian Channel (ch 226) from Friday, 07 May

Author: Jan Hendrik Harmse