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Take a Tour of NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery: The Longest-Serving Orbiter

NASA Space Shuttle Discovery
NASA Space Shuttle Discovery. Image Credit: 19FortyFive.com taken on October 1, 2022.

Though it was actually the first operational space shuttle to be retired from NASA service, the Orbiter Vehicle-103 (OV-103) Space Shuttle Discovery certainly earned that retirement after more than 27 years in service. As the third operational orbiter – preceded only by Columbia and Challenger – Discovery actually launched and landed successfully 39 times, more spaceflights than any other craft to date.

(We got very close to NASA’s Discover Space Shuttle. Check out our original video of the shuttle above.)

By her last mission, the shuttle had flown 149 million miles (238 million km) in 39 missions, completed 5,830 orbits, and spent 365 days in orbit over a career spanning 27 years. Discovery also flew every mission type during the space shuttle era and had a record of distinctions, including carrying Judith Resnik – who became the second American woman in space – on the first mission on August 30, 1984.

In addition, a total of 251 crewmembers also served on Discovery, the highest of any Orbiter Vehicle. Those who served on the shuttle included Charles Walker, a McDonnel Douglas engineer who became the first “non-astronaut” to fly on a space shuttle, as well as Sen. Jake Garn and Sen. John Glenn. Frederick Gregory, who became NASA’s Acting Administrator in 2005, served as the first African American Space Shuttle commander aboard Discovery, while Discovery was also the first piloted by women, including Eileen Collins and Pamela Melroy.

Missions Accomplished – Other Significant Firsts for Discovery

Missions included delivery and retrieval, Department of Defense, scientific, Hubble Space Telescope, Mir, and space station assembly, crew exchange, and resupply missions.

During her 27 years in operation, Discovery conducted eight communications satellite delivery flights, four classified Department of Defense (DoD) flights, and nine with science labs, instruments, and probes as her primary payloads. In addition, the shuttle took part in three Hubble Space Telescope flights and made two flights – including the final shuttle docking – with the Russian space station Mir. The space shuttle also made the first docking with the International Space Station (ISS) in 1999, the first of a total of thirteen flights to the space station.

Discovery also had the distinction of serving as the “Return-to-Flight” vehicle after the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. The first was for STS-26 in 1988, and the second was when it carried the STS-114 crew on NASA’s Return to Flight mission to the International Space Station in July 2005.

Shuttle Discovery

Shuttle Discovery at National Air and Space Museum on October 1, 2022. Image Credit: 19FortyFive.com

Discovery Retirement and Legacy

The long-serving Discovery was officially decommissioned on March 9, 2011, and was offered to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum for public display and preservation. Following a decontamination process, the shuttle was moved to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia – replacing the Space Shuttle Enterprise. On April 19, 2012, a welcome ceremony was held to mark the craft’s “final wheels stop” and Discovery is now on permanent display.

NASA's Space Shuttle Discovery

NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery. Image Taken by 19FortyFive.com on October 1, 2022.

With the decommissioning of her sister shuttles Endeavor and Atlantis, the program has come to an end – but the legacy of what the Space Shuttles accomplished during more than a quarter century in service lives on, with the development of the X-37B and other experimental spacecraft.

NASA Discovery

NASA’s Discovery. Image Credit: 19FortyFive.com taken on October 1, 2022.

A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Macbrun

    October 3, 2022 at 3:10 pm

    The shuttle program, when envisioned, could have revolutionized how we access space. Unfortunately, Congress and politics got in the way and it became an expensive compromise and now we are back to a capsule(s). Still, it achieved amazing things. I literally grew up as the program evolved and later in life even got to tour Discovery while it was in the Orbiter Processing Facility as part of my USAF job.

  2. Omega 13

    October 3, 2022 at 4:42 pm

    Back in May, I saw Atlantis while visiting the KSC. Sad what that program became. Basically and expensive space truck. It could have been so much more, but the shuttle program was Proxmired again and again.

  3. 403Forbidden

    October 3, 2022 at 11:51 pm

    Timely article, Mr Suciu.

    Thanks a lot.

    The US shuttle led to the development of buran, the Soviet equivalent which incidentally boasted or sported a superior ceramic heat coating.

    Unfortunately, buran only appeared on the scene when the USSR was being torn up by internal forces, despite being a better design and a true masterpiece of Soviet aerospace engineering.

    US shuttle was doomed by the large external tank and the segmented SRBs reflecting weakness or general paralysis of US aerospace skills.

    But back to present time.

    After the air terror campaign against helpless Yugoslavia and the ruthless air-sea Christmas Lewinsky bombing of Iraq, an emboldened US came up with a new military doctrine that called for full spectrum dominance on the battlefield.

    But in 2022, events have shown US doesn’t need to worry too much about the battlefield.

    Instead, US military bigwigs are now flaunting a spanking brand new military doctrine called space domain awareness or space domain dominance.

    Thus, (if only Putin is reading this) russia must realize it’s time to end working/cooperating on the ISS and start putting up its own space stations and space shuttles in orbit.

    Space shuttles or spaceplanes are needed now as US and its minions secretly plan to dominate and control space.

    It’s possible US could outright ban other nations from flying to space in the future.Russia must prepare for such an eventuality.

    But right now, Russia must employ nukes to finish off the fighting in Ukraine. Then concentrate on space matters.

  4. pagar

    October 4, 2022 at 3:51 am

    Russia needs to pull in Iran to join its space program since both countries are hit by never ending sanctions or never ending threats of sanctions by US.

    The sanctions or threats will never go away until after arrival of Judgement Day, so might as well band together now.

    Space is truly the FINAL FRONTIER for everybody.

    As US today already has a headstart in militarizing space, there’s no time to lose.

    Develop spaceplanes, space shuttles, space gliders and FOBS orbital craft to put big fear of the almighty in the hearts of today’s fascismo globalists and neoconized globalists and merchantile globalists.

    Down with globalism, one world-ism and global dominance at all human endeavors.

  5. PAUL WELLER

    October 4, 2022 at 10:02 am

    Growing up in the desert of California, the Shuttles would land in our back yard. When we knew they were landing, we would wait to hear the sonic “boom” as they reentered. We would look up with binoculars and after a quick search we would see the shuttle coming down. After a min, we could see the chase planes escorting it to Rogers Dry lake bed where it landed. The next time we saw it was as it flew off on the back of a 747 on it’s way back to Florida…. Good ol days of the 80s

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