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Final wheels stop: Space shuttle Discovery enters the Smithsonian

April 19, 2012

— Space shuttle Discovery has rolled to its final wheels stop.

On Thursday evening (April 19), after an astronaut-studded ceremony that saw its formal transfer from NASA to the Smithsonian, Discovery was towed into its new and permanent home, the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

"Today, Discovery takes on a new mission — less dynamic perhaps — but just as important," said former Senator John Glenn, who in 1998 flew onboard Discovery more than three decades after becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. "It will be on display not only as a testament to our time but also an inspiration to future generations. It will be a symbol for our nation that spaceflight presents optimism and hope and challenge and leadership, and aspiration to explore and to excel. And that's a big mission in its own right."

Glenn, who served as a witness to the title transfer document being signed, was joined at the ceremony by nearly 30 of Discovery's former crewmates, including NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

"This was the beginning of of a new era — bringing space shuttle Discovery here and having people celebrate the incredible 30 year history of the shuttle program," Bolden told collectSPACE. "But its legacy is the International Space Station. It's private space enterprise, it's going to Mars and going to asteroids and all that kind of stuff."

Discovery's arrival kicked off a four-day celebration marking the space shuttle's induction into the Smithsonian. The "Welcome Discovery" festival, which includes a student day and family days through Sunday (April 22), features NASA exhibits and hands-on activities designed to pay tribute to the past while educating about the future of space exploration.

Enterprise out, Discovery in

Discovery came to the Udvar-Hazy Center by the way of a ferry flight from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday (April 17). The winged orbiter landed at Washington Dulles International Airport mounted atop NASA's Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Before touching down, the air- and spacecraft duo performed an historic flyover of Washington, D.C. and many of its landmarks.

Rolling up to the Udvar-Hazy Center on Thursday morning, Discovery was parked for the ceremony opposite the orbiter that made its own spaceflights possible.

Enterprise, a prototype shuttle that never flew in space but completed a series of critical approach and landing test flights in the late 1970s, had been part of the National Air and Space Museum's collection since 1985. In December 2003, it went on display inside the Udvar-Hazy Center's McDonnell Space Hangar as its centerpiece.

To make room for Discovery, the Smithsonian returned ownership of Enterprise to NASA in 2011. The space agency, in turn, awarded the test orbiter to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, a converted World War II aircraft carrier docked along the Hudson River in New York City.

Early on Thursday morning, Enterprise was rolled out of the museum's hangar and displayed with Discovery nose-to-nose.

After the ceremony, the two spaceships soon parted ways. Discovery was towed into the Udvar-Hazy Center for display while Enterprise was rolled to an apron at Dulles Airport to be mated with the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.

Enterprise will be flown to New York's John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport on Monday (April 23), weather permitting.

A unique icon

Discovery was the first of three orbiters retired from NASA's shuttle fleet. Its final mission, STS-133, launched Feb. 24, 2011, and landed March 9.

It completed 39 missions, spent 365 days in space, orbited the Earth 5,830 times and traveled 148,221,675 miles.

"The Discovery is unique, I think," Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian, told collectSPACE. "Discovery flew for three decades, it was a working aircraft for three decades."

"This thing has an amazing durability to its story. Most of the other things that you see [in the Smithsonian] got used once or for a short period of time. But this thing, it was for 30 years. And it continued to do its job and it was rugged. I think it has a kind of a grit to it to its story," Clough said.

"It's story is so deep and rich because it's got this grit attached to its story. And you look at it and you can say that. We're not going to change it, we're not going to clean it up. It's part of the story," he added.

NASA formally awarded Discovery to the Smithsonian in April 2011, though it had reserved the fleet leader for the public institution since 2008. The National Air and Space Museum had Discovery on its wish list for even longer.

"It has always been our goal to get Discovery, so we are really are pleased that NASA decided in its distribution that Discovery should come here," Gen. J.R. "Jack" Dailey, director of the museum, told collectSPACE. "But I think it's critical — this is the national collection, we have the most complete collection of human spaceflight artifacts and vehicles in the world, so this is kind of the bookend, on the other end of the line, with Mercury on one end and Discovery on the other."







Credit: / Ben Cooper / Michael Grabois / Robert Z. Pearlman

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