On Tuesday, Washington area residents stepped outside to greet the arrival of space shuttle Discovery as it soared over the city on its descent into Dulles International Airport. In 24 hours, according to Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, “3,000 tweets on Spot the Shuttle generated 10 million people talking about the landing.”
Although Discovery and the space shuttle program are retiring, Tuesday’s numbers suggest that curiosity about what lies beyond our planet is still alive and well. Discovery‘s new mission, as outlined at yesterday’s official welcome ceremony at the Udvar-Hazy Center, is to continue to cultivate that curiosity.
“When I was a kid, I was very affected by airplanes, so I hope Discovery serves that same purpose for our young people now,” said Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. “When they look at it and learn about all the research that was done on that spacecraft, I think it will inspire our young people to go out and do their own research.” In 1998, Glenn flew on Discovery at the age of 77, becoming the oldest person to ever go to space.
Rather than dwell on the past, the ceremony emphasized the retirement of Discovery as the harbinger of a new era, helmed by the International Space Station and “using space as a laboratory to learn new things,” said Glenn. “While I regret that the shuttle is not still flying, we have other programs being worked on and they have unlimited possibility to benefit us,” he said.
The shuttle was towed in during the ceremony to almost touch noses with Enterprise, which will be transported to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City next week. Next to the gleaming white Enterprise, which has never been to space, the veteran Discovery shows the wear and tear of its long history in space flight.
“If you’ve logged 148 million miles and you’ve gone through the heat shield treatment 39 times, you get a little beat up,” said Secretary Clough. “But I think it gives it character. It looks a little like Han Solo.”
The ceremony kicks off a weekend of celebration to welcome Discovery to its new home. Now that the shuttle has settled into the Udvar-Hazy hangar, the museum will host a series of Discovery-related activities, talks and demos by NASA officials, astronauts, and scientists. See the full schedule here.
Additional reporting by Kelly Smith.