As the countdown ticked closer to liftoff on September 29, 1988, the world held its breath. All eyes were on the television showing the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, many daring not to blink in case tragedy should strike again.
Discovery was ready to go back into the weightless expanse—the first Space Shuttle mission since the Challenger disaster nearly three years earlier. Would there be a repeat of that terrible day on Jan. 28, 1986, when the rocket exploded shortly after takeoff, killing all seven astronauts on board?
It was a nervous moment as the NASA launch commentator counted down: “3, 2, 1, 0 and lift off! Lift off! America’s return to space!” About 8 1/2 minutes later, Discovery eased into orbit around Earth with nary a glitch while billions of people let out a collective sigh of relief.
Today, Discovery is the 172,000-pound centerpiece of space exhibits at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Located at the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, the enormous artifact’s historical significance soars beyond that one mission.
“It actually flew both ‘Return to Flight’ missions,” says Jennifer Levasseur, museum curator of Discovery. “After the loss of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, it was flown on the very first mission on each occasion.
“With the loss of Columbia, Discovery became the most experienced Space Shuttle. It flew the most number of missions and most number of miles. We refer to it as the ‘Champion of the Fleet.’ It is a singular example of the technology that was developed in the 1970s. This workhorse went through a number of refurbishments to last as long as it did.”
From 1984 through its retirement in 2011, Discovery flew a record 39 missions and traveled nearly 150 million miles. All told, it spent a year—365 days—in space and participated in every type of mission planned for the Space Shuttles.
“Discovery is a real highlight of the National Air and Space Museum,” Levasseur says. “For the Smithsonian, it is one of the signature space artifacts. It has such an important story to tell in terms of human spaceflight, the reasons why we go into space and what we learn from being there.”
Among its firsts, Discovery was flown by Eileen Collins, the first female spacecraft pilot, in 1995 and by the first women commanders, Collins in 2005 and Pamela Melroy in 2006, as well as the first African American commander, Frederick Gregory in 1989.
It flew three missions for the Hubble Space Telescope program—deployment in 1990 and servicing in 1997 and 1999—as well as the first and final flights to the Mir space station. In 1999, Discovery was also the first Space Shuttle to dock with the International Space Station, currently orbiting at 254 miles above Earth.
“Discovery was the most used of all the Space Shuttles,” Levasseur says. “It flew incredibly diverse types of missions, including military, science and space station supply and construction.”
Visitors are sometimes fooled by the size of the Space Shuttle. Inside the cavernous McDonnell Space Hangar, it appears rather small. Looks are deceiving: Discovery measures 122 feet long by 58 feet tall with a wingspan of 78 feet.
“It is incredibly large,” Levasseur says. “It had to travel on the back of a Boeing 747 to get to the museum. We include a series of photos with the exhibit to give it a sense of scale and so people can understand what it was like to participate on one of those missions.”
Despite its overall dimensions, Discovery has a small interior. The flight deck, middeck and payload bay are modest in size compared to the exterior. The exhibit incorporates 3-D photography to show people the confining restrictions of working and living in a Space Shuttle for up to a few weeks at a time.
“It’s a really cramped space,” Levasseur says. “The square footage is very small. The middeck is the largest space but it’s only the size of a small van. However, astronauts had the advantage of floating around in a space, so using the volume is a big benefit.”
Museum staff went to great lengths to preserve Discovery when it was delivered to the Smithsonian in 2012. The Space Shuttle had been subjected to considerable stress during its 39 launches and reentries back to Earth. Extreme care was taken to ensure the spacecraft was preserved as it appeared after its final mission—dings, dents and all.
“I remember the very first tour I gave,” Levasseur recalls. “Somebody said, ‘It looks dirty. Are you planning on cleaning it?’ I said, ‘That’s not dirt. That’s scarring.’ Those streaks are markers of its mileage. They show the incredibly violent process of traveling through the atmosphere.”
For the curator, it is a wonderful experience seeing Discovery every day at the McDonnell Space Hangar. Levasseur is thrilled to work on the exhibit and talk to visitors about the Space Shuttle program, which ended more than a decade ago. It is often a bittersweet moment showing the spacecraft to children who weren’t even born when the final mission was completed.
“The Shuttle is receding into memory these days,” she says. “It makes it a little sad but it is still an iconic space vehicle. I love it that we are still selling toys shaped like Space Shuttles. What can I say? Discovery still makes me smile every time I see her.”
Editor's note, September 24, 2021: This story erroneously put the year of the Challenger disaster as 1988. It was 1986.