Space shuttle Discovery faces one last flight into history

NASA Photo The space shuttle Discovery on the ground in Florida.

The space shuttle Discovery has traveled more than 238 million kilometers (148 million miles) in space, and the now retired orbiter has roughly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) more to go before its final stop. It will leave the Kennedy Space Center on April 17, bound for a museum.

It was a little more than a year ago that the space shuttle Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on its final mission.

The 28-year-old orbiter will take off from the southern state of Florida one last time. But for this voyage, it will not be blasted off a launch pad. Instead, it will hitch a ride on the back of one of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s specially outfitted Boeing 747 jumbo jets.

Valerie Neal is a space history curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Her dangling earrings in the shape of space shuttles are only one indication of her excitement about Discovery’s final flight.

“We’re very excited about that because Discovery will be flown on top of a 747 carrier aircraft, and it will do a flyaround here in the metropolitan area so that people around Washington will be able to see this very unusual sight,” Ms. Neal said. “It will land, and then it will go off to a private part of the airport to be offloaded from the carrier aircraft.”

April 19, Discovery will be unveiled as part of the collection at the museum’s Udvar-Hazy center, just outside the capital. Some of Discovery’s famous former passengers will be in attendance, including astronaut John Glenn, who in 1962 was the first American to orbit the Earth. He returned to space on Discovery in 1998.

The Air and Space Museum is one of the most visited museums in the world, with its main location in downtown Washington, near the city’s grand monuments and attractions. The museum’s Udvar-Hazy annex alone attracts more than a million visitors each year.

But as the museum gains one famous piece, it will lose another. The world’s first space shuttle, Enterprise, has been part of the Smithsonian’s collection since 1985. Discovery will replace Enterprise, and that shuttle will catch a piggyback ride on the 747 to New York City, where it will go on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

Ms. Neal explained that Enterprise is a test vehicle that never flew in space, so it does not have the same rich history as orbiters such as Discovery.

“It will look just like Enterprise does, except instead of being white and black and looking brand new, it’s more beige and gray,” say Neal. “It looks like it’s been to space and back 39 times, and that’s how we want it to look.”

Rounding out the retired shuttle fleet are Endeavour and Atlantis, which will go to California and Florida. Two other shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were destroyed in flight, killing all astronauts on board.

The U.S. space agency retired the shuttle fleet last year to focus on developing the next generation of spacecraft that will travel beyond low earth orbit.

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