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Air and Space Curator Valerie Neal Talks Discovery Prep

Curator Valerie Neal discusses space shuttle Discovery's long journey to the Air and Space Museum

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Space shuttle Discovery ready to launch for its final mission in 2010. Image courtesy of NASA and the Air and Space Museum.

By now, you’ve probably heard that Space Shuttle Discovery is landing at Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, April 17,  to join the Air and Space Museum’s collection at the Udvar-Hazy museum. We spoke to curator Valerie Neal about the donation of the shuttle, the museum’s yearlong preparations for the landing and installation, and how Discovery reflects the history of the space shuttle program.

How did the Air and Space Museum became the final home for Space Shuttle Discovery?

In 2004, President George W. Bush the shuttle program would be phased out by 2010 or whenever the International Space Station was completed. What really prompted that more than anything else was the Columbia tragedy. There was also the sense that the shuttle program had been around for almost 30 years and it was time to do something new. So NASA announced that the orbiters would be retiring, and they invited applications from museums to express an interest in whether they wanted to receive an orbiter. The museums had to fill out an application form that described their facility, their visitation numbers, the demographics and their financial stability. It’s kind of like applying to be an Olympic site. Of course, the Air and Space Museum put in a bid. We asked for Discovery because it was the longest serving orbiter, with the most missions and the most varied history. So we thought that would be the perfect one for the Smithsonian. Last April the decisions were announced.

Tell us about the behind-the-scenes preparation?

We asked NASA to reinstall some equipment that had been removed after landing. Our priority was to keep Discovery in “as last flown” condition, which is the condition we have all our aircraft and spacecraft in. At the same time, we’ve had NASA people here for over a year getting Enterprise ready to be removed from the hangar.

The transfer of the shuttle is a very elaborate process and part of it is very dangerous. The orbiter weighs almost a hundred tons. So it’s being lifted off the top of a 747 carrier aircraft, which stands itself pretty high above the ground and it’s being lifted off by two of the largest cranes you’ll ever see. The landing and the exchange of Enterprise for Discovery are really a ballet. You have different elements on stage that have to move very precisely. It’s all very choreographed.

What is the plan for Discovery once it’s at the Udvar-Hazy Center?

It will be displayed as if it has landed. People can’t go inside because it’s just too easy to damage it. Either just from the dust and grime or from people scratching their names in. The whole interior has been shot in 360-degree panoramic video. At a kiosk, you can survey the whole flight deck, you can tilt and roll the image, and visually float through the hatch.

What was your biggest challenge in planning this?

The biggest challenge was waiting for the decision to be made that we would actually get an orbiter. We never took it for granted. We thought we had a very strong case, but there were only three flown orbiters to go around. And we already had Enterprise, which was a test flight shuttle that only flew in the atmosphere. We were ready to give up Enterprise for Discovery, but we didn’t know if NASA would see it that way. I think that two-year wait was the hardest thing.

How did it feel when you found out you were going to get Discovery?

It was the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight and the 30th anniversary of Columbia’s first flight. We had just announced to the staff and to the public that NASA was going to be making a big announcement, and to come down to the “Moving Beyond Earth” gallery if they wanted to see it. We have a big screen on the wall there and we beamed into NASA television. General Charles F. Bolden, the head of NASA, came on, and he announced that, first of all, Atlantis would be staying in Florida. Then we held our breath. Then he said Discovery would go to the Smithsonian. There was this huge cheer and a lot of clapping. It was just this huge relief.

Enterprise will be replaced by Discovery at Udvar-Hazy. Image courtesy of the Air and Space Museum.

What do you think people will think when they see it?

For people who have been here before and seen Enterprise, I think they will be very surprised to see Discovery. Even though it’s the same vehicle structure, Enterprise looks brand new: bright white and deep black. After 39 trips to space and back, Discovery is more beige than white and more gray than black. In fact, some of the tiles on the underside of Discovery are almost white from coming through the fiery heat of the atmosphere 39 times. I think there’s going to be a shock about what a used space shuttle looks like. And that’s exactly how we want it to look. It’s the champion of the fleet. It’s been to space more times than any other, and it’s stayed in space for a full year altogether. For people who have never seen a space shuttle up close, I think they will feel the same awe that people who have seen Enterprise feel. People unfailingly walk into our hangar and there’s this gasp of “I had no idea that a space shuttle was this big.”

How has space flight changed over Discovery’s 27-year lifetime and the space shuttle program?

I would say we’ve been through two cycles in human space flight. In the 1960s, the purpose of space flight was primarily symbolic. To demonstrate technical expertise and political leadership in that Cold War environment. The space race was essentially a geopolitical competition. The space race was a peaceful alternative to war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Space flight was also very goal-oriented: get in space first, fly around the Earth first, go to the moon first. It was all about competition and winning. But after the moon landing, the prize was won. So, both in the U.S. and in the Soviet Union, the leaders of the space program started wondering what to do next. Both countries decided to turn the space frontier into a place where humans could live, work and do useful things. It wasn’t so much to explore as it was to make space an extension of our lives on Earth, a place not to visit but to stay. So the shuttle spacecrafts were designed to do work in space—deliver satellites, do scientific research, build a space station.

At the same time, with this movement toward a larger spacecraft with a much larger portfolio of tasks, NASA decided it needed engineers and scientists in the astronaut corps. You didn’t have to be a pilot. That opened up a much larger pool of potential astronauts, which included women, African Americans and Hispanics. The shuttle both reflected changes in American society and it also initiated changes in space flight: a more capable vehicle and a more diverse astronaut corps with a mission to live and work in Earth orbit.

A change has taken place over a 50-year period, and Discovery reflects that change very well. Because it flew the most missions, it flew every kind of mission; from the very early ones, which were satellite deployment, to the last ones, which were space station assembly. And it flew every mission in between: national security, scientific research; it carried up one of the planetary explorers. It tells the story of the whole 30 years of space shuttle program. It’s been there almost since the beginning.

Watch for the space shuttle’s descent between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, April 17. Then welcome Discovery to the Udvar-Hazy in a special celebration on Thursday, April 19.

About Aviva Shen
Aviva Shen

Aviva Shen is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress. Before joining CAP, Aviva interned and wrote for Smithsonian magazine, Salon, and New York.

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