Space Shuttle Discovery, the Old Lady of the fleet

When Discovery lifts off from the launch pad soon When Discovery lifted off the launch pad today, it marked a significant milestone in the Space Shuttle program--the beginning of its end, since Discovery will be retired soon after she lands back on Earth.

Orbital Vehicle 103, named for four historic vessels of the British fleet--including one of Captain Cook's ships, and the ship that took Shackleton and Scott to the Antarctic in 1901--was first launched in 1984 and since then has flown more times and further in space than any other Shuttle. With 39 flights under her belt, when she retires she'll also be the one thing that's flown into space and back more than anything else ever.

Possibly because of Discovery's long heritage, she's responsible for some of the most breathtaking Shuttle program imagery--and some of the most impressive spacecraft photos ever produced.

Homepage Rotator image by NASA/Tony Gray, Tom Farrar

Discovery's First Launch
August 30th 1984, 08:41:50 EDT is when Discovery first flew into space, on the twelfth overall flight of the Space Shuttle program--still so new that some schools stopped lessons to show the event on TV. The mission carried two communications satellites into orbit, including LEASAT F2, and demonstrated the OAST-1 large solar-cell test system which informed design of the solar panels on the International Space Station. The mission lasted an hour over 6 days in total, with Discovery completing just under 2.5 million miles of travel.
Hubble Space Telescope under deployment

Mission STS-31, starting April 24 1990 may be regarded as one of the most important missions of the Shuttle program--it carried the world's most amazing astronomical telescope, Hubble, into orbit.

Immediately after its deployment, scientists discovered Hubble had a significant flaw on its main mirror--through no fault of the Shuttle program, which delivered it to space flawlessly. Later missions would be needed to fit the device with "spectacles" to fix its vision, and to upgrade its computers and sensors.

The mission involved many hours of filming with IMAX cameras to make a space documentary, resulting in some of the most impressive space footage ever filmed.

Space Station Mir and the Moon
Mission STS-91, launched on 2 June 1998 may be regarded as significant in the history of human space travel: It marked the final time a Space Shuttle would rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir. Mir would soon after be abandoned, and left to burn up as it de-orbited, and then the Shuttle (and Russian) endeavors switched to support the bigger and more future-focussed ISS. The mission also resulted in this haunting photograph, with two of the Earth's three moons in view.
John Glenn returns to Earth (again)
Shuttle mission STS-95 was the 25th flight of Discovery, the 95th of the Space Shuttle program, and began on October 28th 1998. By now the Shuttle's operations had almost become a non-newsworthy routine, although the launch was the first witnessed by a serving President, as Bill Clinton was viewing from NASA's huge Vertical Assembly Building roof. But Discovery was also carrying aboard one very special passenger: Senator John H. Glenn, one of the celebrated original "missile men" of the Mercury program. At age 77 Glenn became the oldest person ever to fly into space, and performed space health experiments during his flight.
Hubble, captive again
Beginning December 19th 1999, mission STS-103 was the Discovery's last "solo" flight--all the other jaunts into space would involve meeting up with the ISS. It was also the furthest a Shuttle's ever flown from the Earth, reaching an apogee of 378 miles above Earth. The mission was the final effort to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, upgrading it with new gyros, new insulation and new transmitters so it could operate for many more years of astronomic observation.
Roll-out against the sun
This was taken during the roll-out of mission STS-128, where Discovery carried the Italian-made "Multi-Purpose Logistics Module" named Leonardo up to the ISS where it carried out a suite of complex microgravity experiments. While in many ways an unremarkable flight, it's pleasing to imagine what the eponymous Sr. L. da Vinci would've painted having seen this image.
Today's steely-eyed missile-men meet tomorrow's steel spaceman
Discovery's final mission may, by future historians, be viewed as a significant milestone in space exploration. Because part of the payload the Shuttle is taking aloft is Robonaut 2--an android space robot, which may replace fragile humans in many of the more mundane space tasks around the ISS. In the future, Robonauts may even stroll around the Moon acting as electronic avatars for our next stage of discovery, but the gold and white chap aboard Discovery doesn't even have legs: He's an early stage prototype, who'll live and work among the astronauts on the space station to check out how he performs in space. Here Robonaut meets the steely-eyed missile-men who'll risk their lives to fly him into space.
Discovery awaits
Here's something rather wonderful: A photograph, from space, of Space Shuttle Discovery poised and waiting on its Florida launch pad, for the very final time. A historic moment, for the first of the Shuttles--the world's first reusable spacecraft--to retire.