As a confessed space nerd, it was hard not to get a little teary at the images of the space shuttle Discovery flying laps around Washington, D.C. before landing at Dulles Air Force base on Tuesday (April 17). On Thursday, it’s scheduled to be towed into its final home, Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum annex in Chantilly, Virginia, known as the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
That huge facility — which is well worth seeing, if off the beaten path — has previously housed the prototype shuttle Enterprise, which will soon be on its way to New York City. It’s scheduled to fly over Manhattan April 23, then travel by barge to the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum on the Hudson River.
I was lucky enough to see Discovery on the launch pad for its final voyage in the fall of 2010, and only wish I could have seen it circling the capital.
No space shuttle worked harder or longer than Discovery. It flew 39 missions, travelled 148 million miles (5,830 earth orbits, at varying altitudes), and spent 365 days in space. Discovery traveled to the Russian Mir space station long ago, and flew 13 missions to the International Space Station, including its last one. Discovery delivered the Hubble Space Telescope to its orbit, had the first female pilot, and flew astronaut hero John Glenn, the first American in orbit (in 1962) back into space (in 1998) at the age of 77.
The space shuttle program, despite its ups and downs, was one of those things that Americans could be proud of, knowing that it was accomplishing important work and doing things no one else in the world could do. Every successful mission was a shot in the collective national psyche, while the two failed missions brought us together in mourning.
Enjoy your new retirement home, Discovery: you did well. Now get ready for lots of company.
[Top photo cropped from NASA’s Flikr page, bottom photo is mine.]