Saturday, February 19, 2011

Discovery: America's Spacecraft of the Ages

The author and Discovery prior to her STS-56 flight in 1993.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The space shuttle Discovery -- a beautiful white dove and NASA's work horse for over a quarter century -- is just days away from the start of her thirty-ninth and final voyage upon the ocean of space.

This reporter has personally witnessed dozens of Discovery's milestones, including a beautiful low pass over Kelly AFB, Texas in 1989 as she rode a top a Boeing 747 after her STS-29 mission; the dramatic launches of her flights beginning with STS-53 from the Kennedy Space Center; and the beautiful IMAX high quality video as she sailed around two different space stations.

On Thursday, Discovery will set out on a twelve day mission to resupply the International Space Station, and deliver a permanent storage module, with a crew of six.

Although her first flight was in 1984, one would need to go back to America's Bicentennial to witness the start of her construction at the Rockwell plant in Palmdale, California.

Named after two traditional exploration ships of the early 1600's and the 1770's, Discovery has spent the last 26 years making discoveries of her own in the way we see not just our earth but the space around us.

Structural spares from the building of two previous orbiters were built in 1976. These segments later began to form Discovery's crew cabin once the government gave NASA the funding to build a fourth orbiter in January 1979.

At this point in time, three other orbiters were completed or neared completion. Enterprise was already performing air flight drop tests, however it was not space flight rated; Columbia was built and just weeks away from her delivery to Florida's Kennedy Space Center; and Challenger was under construction at the Rockwell plant in Palmdale.

Discovery and her sister ship Atlantis were built when it was determined in 1978 that upgrading Enterprise for space flight could not happen due to the way she was constructed.

Discovery's wings were completed and were attached to her fuselage in the summer of 1982.

NASA's third space shuttle orbiter vehicle (OV-103) destined to soar through space rolled out of Rockwell for delivery to America's spaceport on October 16, 1983.

Once arriving at Kennedy a few weeks later, Discovery was towed to her new home in the orbiter processing facility for tests and inspections prior to her first planned flight in June 1984.

Discovery's maiden flight was to have been the sixteenth space shuttle mission (STS-16), but cancelled missions moved it up as the twelfth flight under a new designation, STS-41D.

STS-41D was the fourth flight under the new payload identification system: Space Transportation System (STS) and the 4 meant the fiscal year of 1984, the "1" stated it was a KSC launch (where "2" was to have been the Vandenberg, AFB site); and "D" is the designation for the payload flight of the year.

Discovery's maiden flight was delayed one day to June 26th, but a dramatic shutdown of two of her three main engines seconds before launch would keep the craft earthbound another two months.

"6, 5 we have main engine start... (NTD states "cut-off")... We have a cut-off. We have an abort by the on board computers of the orbiter Discovery," NASA's launch commentator stated as it happened.

Suddenly, launch control began reading all of their data. Engineers began safeing both Discovery and her boosters as they scrubbed the launch. Launch director Bob Seick and his team knew the entire stack would need to be returned to her hanger to replace the three used engines.

Discovery would later return to her ocean side launch pad, and on August 30, 1984, set sail on her first flight:

"3, 2, 1. We have SRB ignition and we have lift-off! Lift-off of mission STS-41D, the first flight of the orbiter Discovery, and the shuttle has cleared the tower!", the launch commentator exclaimed at 8:42 am as she rose into the blue Florida sky.

STS-41D's "Zoo Crew" of six -- commander Henry Hartsfield, pilot Mike Coats and mission specialists Steve Hawley, Richard M. Mullane, Judith A. Resnik and Charles Walker -- spent six days in space deploying three communications satellites; deploying a 102-foot solar sail mock-up; and testing Discovery's on board systems as this was her maiden flight.

The Zoo Crew reference was an internal crew joke as Resnik kidded Mullane and Hawley upon their meeting of actress Bo Derek who had just starred in the movie remake of Tarzan. Judy would call Mullane "Tarzan" and Hawley "Cheetah". Mullane's answer to Judy, "Well you must be Jane then."

When I worked for Space Camp and Astronaut Hall of Fame, I became Mullane's personal guide during his two day visit in 1996. I asked him a lot about that flight and he shared with me several great stories of 41D.

Discovery flew her second flight STS-51A two months later on an exciting mission which saw two spacewalking astronauts go out and capture two wayward satellites stranded in low earth orbit. The two satellites were launched earlier in the year, and Discovery captured them and returned them home to be repaired and relaunched.

The orbiter would fly four times in 1985 on satellite delivery flights and one classified military mission which earned the white dove the name "Battlestar Discovery".

During 1985, the space shuttle's planned second launch site at Vandenberg, AFB was being prepared for it's first launch. Discovery was destined to become the military orbiter and fly the first California shuttle flight in March 1986 on mission STS-62A (6 for 1986, 2 for VAFB and A for the first payload of the year).

However, fuel tank contamination issues at the launch site saw that the launch would likely be delayed past the March target date.

Then came the loss of Challenger on January 28, 1986, loosing both Resnik, school teacher Christa McAuliffe and five astronauts due to high upper level winds placing stress on a frozen, frailed o-ring seal on the shuttle's right solid rocket booster. The failed seal allowed for a small plume of fire to lick the external tank and causing the tank to explode, causing Challenger to break apart.

NASA spent the next thirty-two months adding a new capture feature to a redesigned SRB; performing over 100 modifications and upgrades to the three remaining orbiters; and learning how to fix how NASA conducts flight safety.

Discovery was then selected to lift America back into space.

On September 29, 1988, Discovery mission STS-26R carried a crew of five and a new tracking and data satellite to replace the one lost on Challenger's flight.

Discovery spent the next few years carrying aloft space observatories and spacecraft destined to observe the planets and galaxies.

In the spring of 1990, Discovery and a crew of five launched the Edwin Hubble Space Telescope into earth orbit. On her next flight in October, the Ulysses spacecraft was deployed from the orbiter to begin an unexpected nearly 19 year mission to understand "the Global Structure of the Sun's environment-the heliosphere", according to NASA's JPL.

Discovery became the first orbiter to rendezvous with a space station when in 1995, the craft began a station keeping flight next to Russia's Mir station. A few of us referred to this mission as the "Mir-go-round" flight.

I still recall standing at the launch pad hours before her launch and thinking that this spacecraft will be flying in formation with a space station. There's something truly special about that... I wanted it to inspire me.

Ironically, the orbiter would dock only once during the nine shuttle-Mir docking flights. In June 1998, her STS-91 flight performed the final Mir docking as her crew picked up astronaut Andy Thomas from his multiple month stay on the station.

A few months later, Discovery's 25th flight carried a crew of seven including former Mercury astronaut John Glenn to space on a science mission. On February 20, 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth and became a national hero. So much so that then President John Kennedy denied Glenn's return to space for fear of loosing him to a tragic space flight accident later.

Discovery revisited Hubble twice in the late-90's, and also flew the 100th space shuttle flight on October 2000.

The 2000's are known at NASA as the construction years of the International Space Station. It also became the start of America's ten-plus years of continuous living and working in space. Beginning on November 2, 2000 and thru today, at least one American has been in space.

In 2001, Discovery carried both the station's Expedition two and Expedition three crews to orbit to begin their three month stays aboard earth's orbital outpost in space.

By 2002, NASA was running at full steam. The space station was growing and her crews were performing great science 220 miles above earth.

Then on February 1, 2003, America lost Columbia during her return to earth.

America stood down and began to focus on how the physics of the loss of foam insulation from the external tank can damage the belly of an orbiter during launch. This is what doomed Columbia as insulation traveling at a high speed slammed into the wing's leading edge on the underside of the orbiter. It punctured a hole and when Columbia completed her 16 day flight, the hot gases and temperatures of reentry began to fill the inside structure of the craft causing section after section to break off over Texas.

Long hours were spent fixing the way the foam insulation was applied to the shuttle's external tank.

On board the space station, NASA and Russia downsized the crew compliment from three to two until the shuttle program resumed.

Then in July 2005, Discovery's 31st mission returned America to space once again, however this time during her launch several insulation pieces had broken off without damaging the craft. NASA stood down another year to make more adjustments to the tank.

An Independence Day launch in 2006 on a space station resupply flight gave America a much needed lift, and helped resume the building of the station.

Since then, Discovery has carried up to station the huge Port 5 and the Starboard 6 truss segments; the Japanese Kibo science module in 2008; and the Leonardo multipurpose logistics module to resupply the complex.

Now as we witness Discovery's final flight this month, her 39th mission will again carry Leonardo, but this time her crew of six will leave the Italian-built module docked to station permanently as a storage section.

Discovery's shortest flight of 3 days, 93 minutes was a January 1985 Department of Defense mission STS-51C. Her longest single flight occurred last April when it flew a 15 day, 2 hour and 47 minute trip to resupply the International Space Station.

When Discovery breaks out of orbit in two weeks and returns home, she maybe flying into the sunset of her storied career, but will pass the torch on to the generations of future spacecraft.

It takes thousands of people to cleanup and turn each orbiter around for her next flight. It's great people like these here at Kennedy and around the country who have kept Discovery flying safely and in great shape for more that a quarter century.

The Smithsonian Air and Space museum in Washington, DC wants Discovery to be her next home beginning in 2012. A formal announcement will likely be made this spring.

Discovery has been a favorite of mine for the past 26 years, and I look forward to seeing her again in our nation's capital.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

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