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.
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.
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.
Bonus: Russia Also Tried to Build a Space Shuttle (See the Buran Below)
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.