A new mission for Discovery

Photo by Carolyn Russo


End of an Era

I was a PhD student at UC Berkeley in the tumultuous 1960s.  In the course of a few years, three of our most eloquent leaders, President John Kennedy, his brother, Robert, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were felled by assassins’ bullets.  Fierce debate raged over Vietnam. In the midst of this turmoil, an optimistic idea was hatched—to build reusable space shuttles that could land like airplanes, function as sophisticated science labs and act like trucks hauling supplies and satellites into space. The blue-collar practicality of the shuttles didn’t make the missions any less thrilling—or less dangerous. Americans will always remember the loss of the 14 courageous astronauts on the shuttles Challenger and Columbia, tragically destroyed in flight.

Of all the shuttles, none flew more missions than Discovery—39 in all. During its remarkable history, Discovery logged a full year in space, flying more than 148 million miles and orbiting the planet 5,830 times. Not every mission was problem-free: Discovery’s launch was once delayed when NASA engineers had to use fake owls to scare away some pesky woodpeckers  from their multimillion dollar spacecraft.

Discovery’s incredible journey took another turn last month, as it arrived at its final home, the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Although its space missions are over, Discovery has an important new mission here on Earth.  Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman has observed, “Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit.” The newest Smithsonian resident and its many accompanying artifacts provided by NASA will help keep that spirit of exploration alive.


On the morning of Tuesday, April 17, Discovery made its final descent to Washington Dulles International Airport atop a modified 747 jumbo jet, circling the Capitol and the National Mall to the cheers of onlookers—including hundreds of Smithsonian staff.  Gen. Jack Dailey, director of the Air and Space Museum; Under Secretary for Science Eva Pell and I watched from the tarmac as the 747 put down wheels on the runway right in front of us. It was an emotional moment as we realized we were watching the end of an era in space exploration.  Discovery was taxied over to a quiet spot in the Dulles complex where U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and I welcomed her home.  An up-close look at Discoveryrevealed its scarred exterior—blasted by 39 re-entries through 3000-degree heat— character lines that make this craft even more compelling.  It looks very much like something Han Solo and Chewbacca would enjoy flying.

Two days later, I was honored to participate in a ceremony where NASA deeded ownership of Discovery to the Smithsonian, and we began the process of saying goodbye to our old friendEnterprise, the shuttle that was used to test concepts and train astronauts.

The festivities kicked into high gear when Discovery was transported to the Udvar-Hazy Center, escorted by several of the flight commanders who flew Discover in space. The two shuttles came to rest nose-to-nose, highlighting the striking contrast between the pristine Enterprise and the weather-beaten Discovery.

Secretary Clough with Space Shuttles Enterprise (left) and Discovery. (Photo by Carolyn Russo)

I was proud to take part in the celebration with luminaries such as Gen. Dailey, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden many of our Board of Regents, including chair Dr. France Córdova.  Fifteen Discovery commanders and 12 mission specialists joined us, and we were honored to participate with Senator John Glenn, a longtime friend of the Smithsonian and a legendary pioneer of space travel.

There are times when the gravity of an event overwhelms you.  We all had our prepared remarks and were ready to deliver them.  But when I looked out over the thousands of people who had waited hours for the program, many of them children who knew little about the shuttle program other than what they had read in history books, I thought about the courageous men and women on the stage and in the audience.  My thoughts then turned to my brother, Dan, who worked for 30 years as a dedicated NASA employee in support of the shuttle orbiter program.  He and his fellow NASA colleagues represented the best of what federal service is all about.  Federal employees like these make unseen sacrifices every day and they deserve nothing but our admiration and respect for a job well done.

Fortunately, the weight of the moment was lightened by the astronauts themselves. This was a group living in the moment, happy to see each other again, wisecracking and joking, sharing a kinship that only those who push the boundaries of human flight can understand.  Included in that fraternity were NASA Administrator Bolden, who was a Discovery commander, and Gen. Dailey, who flew hundreds of missions as a Marine pilot in the pre-shuttle era.  There I was living vicariously in this group of amazing people and I thought, “This is why it is such an honor to be the Secretary of the Smithsonian.”  And, okay, I admit, I teared up.

Educational Legacy

Throughout Discovery’s welcome celebration, people shared their photos, comments, and videos using Flickr, Twitter, Instagram Facebook, and YouTube.  In just the first 24 hours afterDiscovery’s arrival in the skies, 3,000 tweets got 10 million people talking. We were thrilled to host our first ever NASA Social—a gathering of dedicated social media experts. Their “Tweetups” with us have really helped us connect to young learners everywhere so we can directly bring them the stories of the Smithsonian in their own medium.

During Discovery’s arrival weekend, young people were able to meet and ask questions of astronauts and NASA scientists, participate in a hands-on Mars Science Lab, experience an interactive robot exhibit and design their own mission patches.  We will continue to build programs around Discovery’s scientific and technical achievements, as well as the stories of the astronauts who personify adventure and exploration. Discovery’s enduring legacy will be a renewed optimism carried by today’s students as they become the next generation of engineers, scientists, leaders and travelers to the stars.

Video footage courtesy of NASA (http://nasa.gov/ntv) and Nathan Moeller, Max-Q Entertainment. Introductory music: “Stay Crunchy” by Ronald Jenkees

Posted: 26 April 2012
About the Author:

Wayne Clough is the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Since beginning his tenure in July 2008, Secretary Clough has overseen several major openings at the Smithsonian, including the Sant Ocean Hall at the Museum of Natural History and the reopening of the American History Museum. He has initiated long-range planning for the Institution that will define the Smithsonian’s focus for the future. More about Secretary Clough...