‘What a phenomenal vehicle’: Discovery’s pilots recall amazing rides

Space shuttle Discovery flew the most missions of NASA’s five orbiters, 39. But on her inaugural mission, she balked.

It was June 25, 1984. Michael Coats, now director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, was the pilot. As the countdown hit “five,” the first of Discovery’s three main engines flared, then the second. The shuttle rocked forward and back, pulling at the eight big bolts holding her to the launchpad — a motion known as the “twang.”

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This animated graphic representing the launch of a space shuttle highlights some of the program milestones over the course of its 30 years of missions. For the best viewing experience, please click 'Larger video' in the right column, just under the video.

This animated graphic representing the launch of a space shuttle highlights some of the program milestones over the course of its 30 years of missions. For the best viewing experience, please click 'Larger video' in the right column, just under the video.

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See how the Discovery will take its final flight
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See how the Discovery will take its final flight

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The third engine never lit.

“As we were twanging, suddenly it got very quiet,” said Coats, whose adrenaline was pumping; this was the Navy flier’s first space launch, too. “We could hear seagulls screaming outside. We rocked back and forth for a second. As we’re digesting the fact we’re not going, the first comment came from Steve Hawley sitting behind us. He said, ‘I thought we’d be a lot higher when the engines cut off.’”

After technicians replaced the faulty engine, Discovery finally took wing on Aug. 30, spending the first seven of her eventual 365 days in space.

Robert Cabana piloted Discovery twice, in 1990 and 1992. Now director of Kennedy Space Center, he recalled the eery tension of riding the elevator up to the cockpit at 4 a.m. for his first launch.

“You look at this vehicle and it’s venting and it’s creaking and it’s like it’s alive, like it’s breathing,” he said. “And you just cannot believe you’re going to be inside there blasting off in three hours.”

That time, Discovery launched on schedule.

“That first launch, nothing can prepare you for that. It’s shaking and vibrating. All those pops and cackles you hear on TV? You hear that in the cockpit, too.”

Eight-and-half minutes later, the rumbling ride ends.

“It’s like you’re in a freight train that’s gotten rear-ended,” said Cabana. “It feels like you come to a stop, but you’ve just stopped accelerating and you’re going 17,500 miles per hour. It’s just this amazing ride uphill, this sense of speed and acceleration. What a phenomenal vehicle. Once you get off the [solid rocket boosters], it’s just as smooth as can be on the three main engines. It’s like electric drive. It’s amazing.”

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