Discovery, from alpha to omega

April 18, 2012 by Mike Collins

The space shuttle Discovery arrives in Washington, D.C.

I was among the thousands of people who flocked to the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Annex at Washington Dulles International Airport on Tuesday to see the arrival of the space shuttle Discovery.

For many of them, it was a bittersweet experience, and understandably so. It’s hard to imagine NASA without a space shuttle; for a couple of generations, the winged, reusable vehicle has represented the space program. But for me it also represented a first, and last, chance to see the veteran orbiter in flight–albeit on the back of a jumbo jet.

Back in 1984, as a newspaper photographer in Florida, I was credentialed for the launch of mission STS 41D: Discovery’s maiden flight. We set up remote cameras in the swamps near launch pad 39A (NASA mandated a buddy system for setting up remotes, to prevent local wildlife–particularly alligators–from creeping up on an unwary photographer). I even managed to snag a pass for the Fire Tower, then the closest that civilians were allowed during a launch (it ceased to be a media option after the Challenger disaster). I was standing on that tower on a hazy, humid Florida morning, squinting at the pad through an 800-mm lens, when the countdown was halted and the launch scrubbed.

I recall driving back down to Kennedy Space Center a week or two later for a second scheduled launch, which also was postponed. When 41D finally lifted off, I was out of state and missed the event. Later, I did get to see a shuttle launch, and it’s an experience I will always remember–the vibration as the shock waves slowly roll over you, so long after liftoff that it almost takes you by surprise. That wasn’t Discovery, however; the orbiter eluded me until its very last flight.

Carlos Rodriguez awaits Discovery’s arrival.

Carlos Rodriguez, decked out in a red, white, and blue jacket and hat, also was waiting for Discovery at Dulles Airport. He had traveled from Virginia to Florida, twice, to see Discovery lift off–and he, too, was stood up both times. Eventually he did get to see Endeavour launch, but he still wanted to see Discovery fly, and welcome the orbiter to its new home.

Short final to Runway 1 Right at Washington Dulles.

Discovery’s delivery to the National Air and Space Museum was uneventful, but as the spacecraft was landing, there was a little drama for those who brought along an aviation receiver. As the Boeing 747 shuttle transporter glided down the ILS to Runway 1 Right at Dulles, the pilot not flying radioed the tower controller that its NASA T-38 escort was fuel critical. Not missing a beat, the controller very professionally worked the jet past a row of news helicopters hovering just east of the airport, and brought it around for an expedited landing. We all appreciated the safe outcome, as well as the controller’s helpful updates on the orbiter’s location.

One Response to “Discovery, from alpha to omega”

  1. Al Marsh Says:

    I’m adding my own experience here, since it isn’t a full, separate blog posting. I was on assignment for AOPA Pilot in the back of an FAA King Air during a launch. Their job was to chase rubber-necking pilots out of the airspace. My job specifically was to spell out backwards the letters “F A A” and a frequency in the windows of the King air, so the intruding pilot could read the message as it would appear normally and give us a shout-out on the radio. There were a couple of intruders but they were intercepted by other security aircraft. At launch time, I witnessed the Shuttle from several thousand feet in the air as it climbed through the pilots’ windscreen a few miles ahead.

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