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On March 9, 2011, the oldest surviving space shuttle of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Discovery, landed on Earth after completing its final flight into space. Discovery, better known to the scientists at NASA by its Orbiter Vehicle Designation OV-103, had been operational for over twenty-seven year. The space shuttle took off on its maiden voyage, STS-41-D on August 30, 1984 and on its final voyage STS-133 on February 24, 2011. The final touchdown of Discovery at Cape Canaveral, Florida, its home base, was a moment of pride and achievement for the space shuttle team at NASA.

Naming Discovery

The space shuttle Discovery was named after historic vessels of the same name used by pioneer explorers of the world. Discovery was the name of the boat used by Henry Hudson, the British maritime explorer on his voyage in 1611 in trying to locate a passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. In the course of his explorations he discovered Hudson Bay. Another vessel HMS Discovery was commanded by Captain James Cook and Captain Charles Clarke on their voyage across the Pacific Ocean that led to the discovery of the Hawaii Islands in the late 1700s. Two other ships called Discovery sailed on the British Royal Geographical Society missions to the North Pole and to Antarctica. Following the legacy of exploration set by these vessels NASA named the space shuttle Discovery.

Missions Flown

Discover was the third orbiter and space shuttle to join NASA's fleet at the John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in November 1983, after Columbia and Challenger. Its maiden launch in August 1984 was on a mission to position three communication satellites in space.

Since the maiden flight the space shuttle has been successful in completing about thirty-nine missions. On its mission STS-31, Discovery was sent to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope in April 1990. Discovery was launched on two further missions to service the Hubble – STS- 82 the second servicing mission of the telescope in February 1997 and again in December 1999 to service Hubble a third time. Other Discovery missions were commissioned to ply the crew and various modules of the International Space Station and to deploy satellites in space. With the close of its final flight Discovery had completed over 365 days in space.

Discovery has deployed a total of eight communications satellites and completed two missions to the Russian space station Mir, apart from undertaking eight Department of Defense flights

Discovery Flight MissionLaunch Date

Discovery Upgraded

The space shuttle prototype Enterprise and the space shuttles Columbia and Challenger were part of NASA's Space Shuttle Program before the launch of Discovery. Discovery benefited from the experience of building these crafts. Weighing about 6,870 pounds less than Columbia, Discovery underwent many feature upgrades in its twenty-seven year long career. In 1995 Discovery was put through a nine-month long downtime called Orbiter Maintenance Down Period. With the upgrades done, Discovery was equipped with an external airlock and five sets of cryogenic tanks. Again in September 2002, Discovery was upgraded in an Orbiter Major Modification making it safer. The 2002 modifications were carried out at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Discovery's Final Mission

Discovery's final mission, STS-133 was launched on February 24, 2011. NASA's 133rd space shuttle mission was headed by Commander Steven Lindsey and the shuttle docked with the International Space Station. Discovery transported Leonardo, the Permanent Multipurpose Module, and other items including Robonaut (the first humanoid robot) and the third ExPRESS Logistics Carrier to the space station. Scheduled for September 2010, the mission was delayed thrice due to technical glitches before finally being launched in February 2011. The mission was meant to be concluded in eleven days but extended into thirteen days allowing the astronauts to work on repairs.

Discovery Highlights

Discovery was the first space shuttle to be flown by an African American commander, Frederick Gregory in 1989. Later in 1995, Discovery was also the first space craft to be flown by a female pilot, Eileen Collins. Discovery was also piloted by Pamela Melroy on her maiden voyage as a captain in 2000. Charles D. Walker became the first non-astronaut to fly in space on-board the Discovery in 1984. Discovery was chosen in 2000 to fly NASA's hundredth shuttle mission. Due to its record for successful endeavors, Discovery was chosen for the Return-to-Flight missions after the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the Columbia disaster in 2003. Discovery has traveled the farthest among the space shuttles and has carried the most crew members.

Discovery at Smithsonian

On March 9, 2011, after its final landing, Discovery was decommissioned by NASA. The space shuttle is scheduled to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum's Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center, in Chantilly, Virginia, in 2012. This will follow a decontamination program that the shuttle will be put through for a few months. Enterprise the space shuttle prototype was previously on display here. Discovery will now replace Enterprise and is likely to draw a huge crowd of space enthusiasts and students.

NASA's final space shuttle mission was completed on July 8, 2011, with the landing of the space shuttle Atlantis.

Last Updated on: September 30th, 2021
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