Star Points for May 2012 by Curtis Roelle

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air & Space Museum (NASM) has acquired a magnificent piece of flown space hardware. The space shuttle Discovery is now on permanent exhibit there following its retirement last year. During a long career, Discovery was launched into space 39 times – more than any other space vehicle in history. It’s now located almost in our back yard, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

The complete fleet of space shuttles and their “orbital vehicle” serial numbers are as follows: Enterprise (OV-101), Columbia (OV-102), Challenger (OV-099), Discovery (OV-103), Atlantis (OV-104), and Endeavour (OV-105). In addition are a few full sized replicas and simulators scattered around the country, including Explorer at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida and Pathfinder at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Huntsville, Alabama.

Although Enterprise never went into space it did fly in approach and landing tests. Challenger and her crew perished during its tenth launch in 1986. Columbia and her crew were lost during its 28th landing in 2003. After each of those losses, it was Discovery that returned the United States shuttle fleet to flight status.

In 1983, nearly 29 years ago, Enterprise was exhibited at the Paris Air Show. On its return flight, mated to the back of a Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), Enterprise made several circular passes around Baltimore and Washington. It was an impressive sight from Pikesville where I observed its pass.

The following year I was in Florida for Discovery’s maiden flight. I viewed its launch from the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Discovery’s solid rocket boosters lit up the sky like a second sunrise as it leaped from the pad, then rolled precariously clockwise until the orbiter was hanging beneath the shuttle’s fuel tank, and headed out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Enterprise found a home in Virginia when the Udvar-Hazy Center opened in 2003. Since then it has been exhibited in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar. However, that changed this April with the arrival of the well-worn space shuttle Discovery and its inclusion in the museum’s permanent collection.

I attended multiple Discovery events over several days at the Udvar-Hazy Center. My friend Tom, a member of the Westminster Astronomical Society (WASI) and the National Air & Space Society (NASS), invited me to a NASS breakfast on the morning of Discovery’s arrival. We dined on the roof of the museum’s five-story-tall Airbus IMAX Theatre. After breakfast, we stood on the balcony observing and photographing Discovery’s landing. The view was tremendous.

Discovery was ferried piggy-back on the SCA from KSC where it had been undergoing refurbishment, including the removal of its main engines for further flight research. The Discovery/SCA stack was accompanied by two T-38 NASA trainer jets. After making a low slow pass over the museum, the entourage banked toward the east for flybys of several famous Washington area landmarks. After about 45 minutes the jets returned.

Space Shuttle Discovery
Space Shuttle Discovery landing at Dulles International Airport as viewed from the roof of the Smithsonian Institution's Udvar-Hazy Center Air & Space Museum (Photograph by Curt Roelle).

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The SCA pilots made one more pass over the museum then banked left and flew a wide circle to the west. On its final approach, with the SCA landing gear down, Discovery appeared to descend down into the trees as it reached the runway at Dulles International Airport, next door to the museum.

Tony, another WASI member and also a professional jet pilot for a major commercial carrier, was on the ground with his son to view the landing. “We headed into the trees,” he said, “and got all the way up to the airport fence.” From there the pair had a magnificent view as the SCA touched down. “We saw the smoke puff when the wheels hit and everything,” exclaimed Tony.

Two days later, after being de-mated from the SCA, Discovery was delivered to the museum. Discovery slowly moved along the taxiway behind the museum until it stopped nose-to-nose with Enterprise. Enterprise had been wheeled out of its hangar, where it spent the previous eight years, to make way for Discovery.

The visual differences between Enterprise and Discovery were stark. Enterprise is a bright white very clean and pristine museum specimen. But Discovery is worn and scorched, with its chipped tiles a testament to the more than 365 total days it has spent in space. Discovery is a real space vehicle and is now accessible to the public.

Half of the 32 astronauts who have commanded one or more Discovery missions and many of her former crew were on hand for the reception. This group included Charles Bolden, the current NASA administrator. Bolden has traveled into space on four space shuttle missions including two on Discovery – once as pilot and once as commander – including the mission that launched the Hubble Space Telescope.

One crew member was introduced as “Discovery Payload Specialist 2.” John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth during his Friendship 7 project Mercury mission, returned to space for his second flight 36 years later aboard Discovery. The 90-year-old Glenn stood up and gave a speech praising America’s pioneering spirit and how it led this country to its role as world leader in space.

I returned the next day for a special NASS preview of Discovery in its new exhibit hall where Enterprise was once parked. Several of her former crew gave guided tours to small groups of visitors.

For me it was a special privilege to have been present for Discovery’s first flight into space and for her final landing in Virginia where she will be visited by millions in the years to come.

On the way home I swung by Dulles and saw the Enterprise had already been mated onto the SCA for its trip to New York City. Later it will be transferred by barge to New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum Complex. Enterprise has served our metropolitan area well for the past several years and now she will enjoy a new home.

Seven days later I was at my job in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Shortly after the scheduled time of takeoff for Enterprise and the SCA I stepped outside into the parking lot. Several minutes later they made a very low slow and majestic pass directly over the building. Then they climbed into a cloud and Enterprise was on her way to New York.