Space shuttle Discovery's workers brace for its last launch

Feb 22 2011 - 7:57pm


Thousands of sightseers are flocking to Florida's Cape Canaveral this month, eager for the lightning-bright, thunderously loud final launch of the space shuttle Discovery.

But to technicians and managers who work on Discovery, and to astronauts who have flown it, the spacecraft's last launch is more than a historic milestone.

"A lot of times, you almost think of it as a family member," said NASA manager Stephanie Stilson, whose job is to prepare Discovery for flight.

For her and everyone else who works on Discovery -- which will be the first space shuttle officially retired -- the coming countdown is deeply personal.

If Discovery launches as scheduled Thursday, "I will definitely make sure that I have tissues with me," Stilson said.

Discovery has flown 38 times, orbited Earth more than 5,000 times and spent nearly a year in space. For the space shuttle program as a whole, this is the third-to-the-last scheduled flight.

After its final flight, Discovery will begin a new life as a museum piece. The final flight for Endeavor, first launched in 1992, is scheduled for April 19. The final one for Atlantis, first launched in 1985, is set for June 28.

To much of America, the shuttle is an afterthought, a ho-hum space truck.

But for those who fly and fix the nation's three reusable spaceships, this is a time of pride as well as sadness.

"It's like one of your favorite relatives that has cancer and you know you're going to lose them and you just don't know when," said Lorie Stansberry, Discovery's lead vehicle planner.

Discovery has not gone gently. Scheduled to launch on numerous dates in November, December and February, it was delayed by gas leaks, weather and external tank issues.

"She's got the tenacity," Stansberry said. "... She knows she's being put out to pasture, I think."

Michael L. Coats, the pilot on Discovery's first flight in 1984, recently recalled that the astronauts climbed into the cockpit on four separate days that year before actually launching.

"I think it was reluctant to go into space the first time, and now it's reluctant to go to a museum," joked Coats, now director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Discovery was the third orbiter to fly in space, but the first two -- Columbia and Challenger -- were destroyed in later accidents.

Over the years, Discovery got a reputation as the fleet's "old reliable."

"Discovery has always been the workhorse that you could count on, that leaked (fuel) the least, that was just the sweetheart," said Bruce Melnick, who flew aboard Discovery in 1990.

It also has a history of important missions.

"It was the vehicle from which the Hubble Space Telescope was flown," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut who flew Discovery twice. "It was the vehicle for which America and Russia came together for the first joint shuttle mission, it was the first vehicle to have a woman fly as a pilot."

During Melnick's first Discovery flight, his job was to float up to a window right after getting into space and take pictures of the external tank. But "after all that training, I was so in awe of what Earth looked like, I forgot my first job." It took a minute before he remembered to snap pictures.

Eileen Collins, the first female shuttle pilot, commanded Discovery in 2005 when it made the first launch after the Columbia accident, at a time when NASA's safety culture had come under harsh criticism. She said everyone vowed to put safety first, because it represented "something even bigger than each one of us. It was our country's future in space."

Collins, like most astronauts interviewed for this story, believes Discovery could continue flying safely for years.

NASA is working on a new rocket dubbed the "heavy lifter" and a capsule designed to take astronauts deeper into the solar system, possibly to an asteroid or one day to Mars, Bolden said.

Soon NASA will decide where to send Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour for display upon retirement. Kennedy Space Center is among 29 institutions seeking a shuttle. NASA says it is in discussion with the Smithsonian Institution about whether Discovery might end up there.

Many are reflecting on how lucky they feel to have worked on Discovery.

Stansberry, the lead vehicle planner for Discovery who works for NASA contractor United Space Alliance, has a special routine if she's feeling glum at work. She sometimes puts on a protective suit and climbs into Discovery's crew module, as if she were about to fly into space.

"Not everyone can say, hey, I can put on a bunny suit and go sit in the pilot seat of the shuttle to get a good attitude adjustment," she said.

(Contact Curtis Krueger at ckrueger(at)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service


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