NASA’s workhorse space shuttle Discovery is set to land in a few hours from now, marking the end of a career that covered 365 days in space and 148 million miles on the clock. But after what everyone hopes will be a smooth touch down at Kennedy Space Center at 11:57 a.m. EST on Mar 9, what happens next?
When Discovery’s fate is finally announced on April 12 (the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle launch), the money appears to be on a decision to send it to the Udvar-Hazy Center annex of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Virginia. If confirmed, the Discovery would take the place of the Enterprise, the aerodynamic test vehicle used for shuttle landing evaluations.
Discovery on its final mission. (NASA)
All told, some 29 museums and other exhibition organizers are apparently vying for the privilege of displaying Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour and – assuming it becomes displaced – the Enterprise.
But it seems the true destination of Discovery is not yet as firm as some may have us believe. A few days ago I spoke to Roger Krone, President of Boeing Network and Space Systems which includes the company’s space exploration, satellite and International Space Station businesses and he hinted that the shuttle’s ultimate destiny is far from certain.
Discovery's first launch - August 30, 1984 (NASA)
Discovery's last launch - video taken from a passing passenger aircraft (YouTube)
“I heard on the radio that this orbiter goes to the Smithsonian – I talked to a very knowledgeable person at NASA who said that decision has not been made. They’re putting together a committee to look into that. We at Boeing are agnostic and we’ve no opinion. We’ll inert the orbiter and get it ready to go where it will go,” says Krone. Boeing may be agnostic about where the shuttle will go, but its employees are full of emotion and pride over the achievements of the fleet and have a particular soft spot for Discovery. “This was always our return to flight vehicle – it was the first to return after Challenger and Columbia,” says Krone.
“We haven’t been asked to look at specific locations – but you can imagine (depending on where it would go ultimately) how might it get there?”