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April 13, 2012

When you’re one of the world’s most famous museums taking possession of the world’s most famous spaceship, the first question is also the biggest: how to display it.

For Valerie Neal, curator of human spaceflight at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the answer was simple: Present the space shuttle as if it had just landed, gear down, payload doors closed, underbelly scorched.

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.

As the oldest surviving shuttle, Discovery is now a “reference artifact,” said Neal, to be displayed in a “last flown” configuration as is the Smithsonian’s tradition with air- and spacecraft. Neal asked NASA to preserve as much of the shuttle as possible. While Discovery’s engines and certain other components have been removed, the crew cabin looks just as it did in flight; even the toilet was re-installed after a good scrub.

But the public will never get to see the space potty. While visitors will have clear views of Discovery from above and below, the interior is off-limits.

Space fans eager to peek inside will have two other options. They can pan around interior views by joystick at video kiosks, or they can enter a replica crew cabin at the National Air and Space Museum’s original location, on the Mall.

Some shuttle workers, queried while readying Discovery at the Kennedy Space Center in March, expressed disapproval at the Smithsonian’s plan to keep their charge buttoned up.

Senior technician Kurt McCaughey made a modest counterproposal. Why not remove one door on the 60-foot-long payload bay, install a walkway (he offered one from the space center, which no longer needs them), remove panels from the bottom of the bay, and let viewers saunter over the tangle of wires and cables exposed in the belly of the beast? “Now that would be a shuttle experience,” said McCaughey, understandably partial to rooting around in Discovery’s guts.

Neal’s response: Opening up the shuttle just isn’t feasible. The Smithsonian plans to display the spacecraft for decades, and the wear and tear of tromping visitors would quickly take its toll. “We have the mandate to preserve this for all posterity,” Neal said, noting that visitors drop pennies into and stick chewing gum onto the walkthrough Skylab space station replica on display at the Mall location.

As the museum of record for many American icons — Kermit the Frog, the Star-Spangled Banner, John Glenn’s Mercury capsule — the Smithsonian was a natural retirement home for Discovery. When NASA announced the final resting places for the four space shuttles last year, jilted museum staff and politicians from Seattle, Houston, Cleveland and elsewhere screeched that one or another retirement locale — New York, Los Angeles or the Kennedy Space Center, take your pick — was variously unworthy of a shuttle.

No one made a peep about the Smithsonian landing Discovery.

In the end, Enterprise became destined for Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan; that flight is scheduled for April 23. Endeavour will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles later this year, and Atlantis will be displayed with payload doors open as if in orbit at a new exhibit at Kennedy Space Center slated to open next year.

The Smithsonian is getting a good deal, too: Free. Free shuttle, free delivery. NASA calculated a delivery fee of $11 million, but the intragovernment transfer of funds “just got too complicated,” said Neal. So NASA waived the charge.

Whatever the price, Neal is at turns ecstatic and sad. Ecstatic to curate such a historically weighty artifact; sad that the shuttle program, whose career has so closely paralleled her own, is over.

Namesake of exploration vessels of old, Discovery enters a second life destined not to soar, but to inspire.

“It has carried our aspirations and dreams in space for almost 30 years,” said Neal, who is hoping the craft boosts the Udvar-Hazy visitor count above last year’s 1.2 million. “Now it belongs to the world.”

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