Happy (Belated) 30th Birthday To Discovery, NASA’s Greatest Space Shuttle

Happy (Belated) 30th Birthday To Discovery, NASA’s Greatest Space Shuttle

On 30 August, 1984, the space shuttle Discovery launched on its first voyage to space. It wasn’t the first, but over the next 27 years it became the undeniable king of NASA’s shuttle program.

That first launch 30 years ago was a clear success, but it capped off an incredibly rocky month for the then-new shuttle. Three previous launch attempts had been abandoned before liftoff due to last-minute malfunctions and errors. By the time 30 August rolled around, Discovery’s crew must have been pretty jittery.

But at 8:41am EST, 30 years ago yesterday, Discovery lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on a six-day mission to deploy communications satellites and conduct outer space experiments. Here’s the full footage of Discovery’s first lift-off, from YouTube’s Space Technology:

Despite a few speed bumps on the way to its first mission, Discovery soon became the hero of the space shuttle program. The shuttle flew 39 missions between 1984 and 2011, more than any of the other four shuttles. Discovery carried the first Senator, the first Latina, and the oldest astronaut — John Glenn, then 77 — to outer space. It completed the first 360 degree pitch manoeuvre in outer space, piloted by the first female shuttle commander, Eileen Collins (though Collins’ first mission as shuttle commander was at the helm of Columbia).

More importantly, Discovery became the comeback champion for NASA. The Challenger disaster of 1986 and the Columbia disaster of 2003 shocked the world, both putting a temporary halt to space missions and rattling the resolve of our nation’s space program.

Discovery was the shuttle that returned NASA to space after both of those disasters. In 1988 and 2005, nervous eyes around the globe watched as Discovery stood on NASA’s biggest stage, promising to charge ahead after tragedy.

Let’s go back and relive those moments. From 1988:

YouTube video courtesy Andregrindle

And 2005:

YouTube video courtesy p1tsel

The hardest working shuttle in space business flew 240 million kilometres, orbited Earth 5830 times and spent a cumulative 365 days in outer space. Its 27-year career held all the hallmarks NASA hoped to achieve with the shuttle: Reliable, reusable, durable spacecraft that could stand up to dozens of missions.

Discovery’s last flight was a little less challenging than the 38 missions it flew during its service: On 17 August 17, 2012, the undisputed champ of the shuttle program flew a victory lap around Washington, DC, riding atop a Boeing 747 on its way to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Annex. It was perhaps the least challenging flight Discovery ever took, but it was no less awe-inspiring:

YouTube video courtesy CBS News

The hero of the shuttle program now rests comfortably in the Smithsonian’s hanger in Chantilly, VA. You can peek at it any time day or night via Smithsonian’s live camera. After nearly 241 million hard kilometres, Discovery looks a little haggard and worn. But in its 27-year career, it didn’t just carry astronauts to space — it carried the hopes and dreams of mankind, and brought them back from the pits of despair.

Rest easy, old friend.

Lead photo: Andrew Liszewski.