Space shuttle Discovery departed the Kennedy Space Center for space 39 times over the course of her 27 years of service, but Tuesday the retired spacecraft departed on the back of a specialized 747 beginning her quiet rest as a museum display dedicated to the 30 year shuttle program.
Discovery flew over 149 million miles, spending a total of 365 days in space. Discovery conducted a number of historic missions for the space program, including the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, the first docking to the Russian Mir Space Station, and many International Space Station construction missions.
Technicians began the task of readying her for display in March when Discovery returned from her final mission. The process began by removing hazardous materials and components that could be reused in future space programs.
This week, they started her off on the first steps of her final voyage by moving Discovery from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the Shuttle Landing Facility. There she was connected to a large, specially built, crane structure called the Mate / Demate Device and hoisted off the ground. Then, NASA’s modified 747 aircraft, called the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft or SCA, was carefully positioned under the Orbiter and the Discovery was lowered down and securely attached. After the mated pair was pushed back out of the MDD, groups of KSC employees were allowed to get one last team photograph in front of her.
The SCA, called “905” as a reference to its aircraft registration number of N905NA, has a storied history with the shuttle program. It was originally purchased from American Airlines in July 1974 and heavily modified by the Boeing Aircraft company to strengthen it fuselage to support the weight of the almost 200,000 lb. Orbiter.
One of the first tasks was to carry the Orbiter Enterprise on the early atmospheric test flights that included 5 approach and landing tests where Enterprise was released in flight and glided to a lakebed runway landing. Later, 905 was used to ferry each of the orbiters except Endeavour from their manufacturing plant in California to KSC before their first missions.
Tuesday, 905 and Discovery set out on their last ferry flight together, Taking off from the Shuttle landing facility at first light, the pair flew low over several locations around the Kennedy Space Center and the community of Cape Canaveral to allow people to see her and say goodbye as she flew overhead. They then did one last pass along the Shuttle runway before flying away towards her new home.
After leaving the area of Kennedy Space Center, 905 flew directly north to Washington DC, where they were given unprecedented permission to fly through the restricted airspace over the center of the city. Cheering crowds waited outside to greet Discovery to her new home as they flew overhead.
After almost 4 hours in flight, the pair landed at Dulles international airport, location of the Smithsonian Institution Air and Space museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center where the orbiter Enterprise has been on display since the center opened in 2003.
Visitors will be able to view her starting as early as this Friday, April 20th.
While this will be the end of the journey for Discovery, 905 will still have work to do. Next week, in the same manner as Discovery, Enterprise will be mounted on top of her and flown from Dulles to New York’s John F. Kennedy international airport for eventual display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space museum on Manhattan’s Hudson riverfront. Later this fall, she will undertake a similar journey to deliver the orbiter Endeavour to Los Angeles for delivery to the California Science Center. After that, she will go on to be used in the SOFIA airborne telescope program continuing her 40 history of service to the nation and with NASA.