All that will be missing is the smell.
Exclusive: Explore an interactive of Discovery’s flight deck
“There’s definitely a space smell when it lands,” said NASA’s Stephanie Stilson, who prepped Discovery for launch 11 times. “It’s kind of a burnt-metal smell, an ozone smell.”
On Thursday evening — if good weather holds this week — crews will park Discovery inside its retirement home, a hangar at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport.
Workers will open the hangar’s back door, tow in the shuttle, and voila: instant display.
Even as crews close out Discovery’s cabin — installing flight seats, then battening the hatch — visitors can approach the shuttle and, if an idle worker is nearby, strike up a chat.
Since 2004, the Udvar-Hazy Center has housed NASA’s prototype shuttle, Enterprise. Pristine, shiny white, never launched, Enterprise is virginal.
Discovery, by contrast, is very well loved.
Her siding is singed, seared, burned and battered, badly in need of a wash. Her 20,000 black heat shield tiles are scorched, chipped and cracked; some look like they have been baked into briquettes. (Many of the tiles would have been replaced had Discovery flown again.)
“Discovery tells its own story by the way it looks,” said Neal, who has been planning this moment for 23 years, when she left her writing job with the still-new shuttle program at NASA to work at the museum.
More dinged and dusty old farm truck than sparkling racetrack Porsche, Discovery, in a word, looks flown.
And it should. With 39 flights in 27 years, Discovery was NASA’s hardest-working space shuttle. It played every conceivable orbital role: science platform, satellite launcher, telescope repair station, space station delivery truck.
When Challenger exploded in 1986, Discovery took America back to space. When Columbia disintegrated in 2003, Discovery was there again.
First female pilot. First Russian shuttle flier. The most passengers of any space vehicle — 252. The only shuttle to fly four times in a year (1985). The first and last shuttle to visit the Russian space station Mir. Thirteen flights — the most of any shuttle — to the international space station.
“It really did everything,” said Neal. “We consider it the champion of the shuttle fleet.”
Discovery will also tell its story with its sheer size, its delta-winged shadow an albatross to the hummingbirds resting nearby: the cramped Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules.
“The public always goes from the Apollo capsule to the shuttle and says, ‘Look at this jump. We’re flying an airliner to space and back,’” said Kevin Templin, NASA’s transition manager for the space shuttles, who has spent plenty of time with Enterprise in the Udvar-Hazy hangar.