Letter From Aviation History – September 2012

Discovery rides piggyback past the Udvar-Hazy Center (Guy Aceto).
Discovery rides piggyback past the Udvar-Hazy Center (Guy Aceto).

Changing of the Guard

When you’ve already flown 148,221,675 miles, what’s another 750 miles or so? Discovery, the most-traveled space shuttle, spent those last miles not in orbit but atop a specially modified Boeing 747. On April 17, the jumbo jet carried the celebrated shuttle from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to its final destination at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center adjacent to Dulles International Airport.

It was in one sense a bittersweet journey, since it marked the end of an era for NASA, but you wouldn’t know it from the enthusiastic reception of the overflow crowd gathered at the Udvar-Hazy Center. There the assembled space fans—including many youngsters whose parents had allowed them to play hooky for the historic event—were treated to three flyovers, the last as the piggyback combo made its landing approach. Each slow flyby was greeted with cheers and a few tears, as the stirring sight moved many with its sense of grand accomplishment and, dare we say it, genuine patriotism.

Two days later, Discovery swapped places with the shuttle Enterprise, which had been housed in Udvar-Hazy’s McDonnell Space Hangar since the center opened in December 2003. Enterprise, a test vehicle that never flew in space (despite being named after the iconic starship of Star Trek fame), was soon hoisted aboard the 747 for its flight to New York City, where it will join the collection of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

The shuttle fleet’s retirement has been attended by a good deal of national hand-wringing, as many Americans rightly question the wisdom of relying on Russian rockets for several years to deliver U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. With budget cutbacks NASA has been forced to make some hard decisions about the future of American spaceflight, and is exploring new avenues to get the most bang for its bucks. One of those avenues is to enlist private enterprise under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

In late May, Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, gave us a glimpse of the new paradigm when the company’s Falcon 9 rocket blasted its Dragon capsule into orbit for a rendezvous with the space station. The unmanned capsule carried a relatively paltry half-ton of supplies, but its successful linkup with the station on May 25—the first such rendezvous by a privately built spacecraft—demonstrated that commercial enterprise is up to the task. “Looks like we caught a Dragon by the tail,” commented astronaut Don Pettit after grabbing the capsule with the station’s 32-foot-long robotic arm, Canadarm 2. Six days later Pettit used the same arm to release the Dragon for its return to earth, where it successfully splashed down in the Pacific off Baja California carrying 1,367 pounds of cargo no longer needed aboard that station.

In addition to offering real hope for America’s future in space, the picture-perfect mission triggered a $1.6 billion NASA contract with SpaceX under which it is to deliver a minimum of 44,000 pounds of supplies to the space station. “We are hoping to continue working with NASA and hopefully flying crew within three years,” said SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. “This was a crucial step and makes the chances of becoming a multi-planet species more likely.”

Grandiose dreams? Perhaps, but that’s what America was built on, and it’s something the country could use more of. Just ask those kids in the parking lot at Udvar-Hazy.

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