On April 17, 2012, the Space Shuttle Discovery made its final voyage over Washington D.C. before landing at Dulles International Airport. This was an unusual flight for the space shuttle as it rode on the back of a modified 747 – to the delight of onlookers. The aircraft made a few passes over the metro area for the benefit of the public; and after landing, it was transported to the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center for its retirement where it will replace the prototype shuttle, Enterprise. The Enterprise, the shuttle and not Captain Kirk’s transport, will be moved to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan, New York. The two shuttles sat nose-to-nose during the ceremony in which NASA handed over Discovery to the Smithsonian.
This final flight marks 30 years of shuttle missions and also the end of the NASA-run space shuttle missions all together. The shuttles were the first reusable spacecrafts and they built the largest structure in space while repairing others. It is only fitting that the battle scars remain on the shuttle Discovery while on view at the Smithsonian. Unlike the Enterprise, the Discovery will not be repaired to pristine condition in order to add an element of ruggedness and reality to the exhibit.
Discovery has the most flight extensive record as compared to the other space shuttles, Atlantis and Endeavour, traveling 148,221,675 miles and orbiting the Earth 5,830 times. It was the first shuttle to be piloted by a woman; and Discovery also carried the oldest man into space at 77 years old. It completed 39 missions while spending 365 days in space.
So what’s next for NASA now that they have farmed out the shuttle missions to commercial companies? They still plan on continuing their exploration of space – with goals to land human beings on Mars aboard the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Based on the Orion design, the Orion MPCV is designed for travel beyond low Earth orbit – to infinity and beyond! It works similar to the shuttle missions in that it is meant for multiple launches and re-entries from Earth into Space. This will also serve as a backup system for the International Space Station, moving cargo and crew. NASA also continues to support and staff the International Space Station along with planning and launching future satellite missions.