Two years ago today, the space shuttle Discovery was launched for the last time. My friend Nicole Gugliucci scored a quartet of tickets for the launch and shared them with me, along with our friends and classmates Joleen Carlberg and Gail Zasowski. Facing an overwhelming load of graduate school work, we decided that a road trip from Virginia to Florida was exactly what we needed!
Many hours later, the six of us found ourselves in sunny Florida. Yes, six. The other two road trippers were the mascots for an astronomy outreach club that we helped found in Virginia. Nicole was the only one among us who had witnessed a launch before.
Our tickets let us watch from the Visitor Center, seven miles from the launch pad. We spent the day exploring the Visitor Center, and found a spot in the rocket garden to watch the launch. We couldn’t see the launch pad itself from there, but we could watch final preparations on a big screen showing a close-up view.
Due to a computer problem on the ground, the launch was delayed. We knew we could still see it if it were postponed one day, but if there were further delays, we would probably have to abandon the effort and drive home. The tension in the crowd built until the countdown clock started again, with just three seconds to spare in the launch window. The audience erupted into cheers.
The experience didn’t start to feel real to me until I saw the cap lift off the shuttle’s nose cone, leaving it free to launch. Sparks were fired around the main engines to burn up any stray fuel, preventing accidental fires. Then, on the screen, we saw the engines light!
The red flames from the engines focused in to sharp white points, causing the shuttle to “twang,” rocking forward a bit. When it rocked back to a vertical position, the more powerful solid-fuel rocket boosters (SRBs) lit off. I was expecting that, but it still made me jump.
Moments later, we felt the ground shake, and then the shuttle rose into view, the flame from its SRBs shining nearly as brightly as the Sun. It hurt to look at it. A few moments later, as we jumped around and cheered, the rumble and roar of the launch reached us.
It was awesome to see this feat of engineering with my own eyes, and to think that there were six people in that shuttle, with an incredible amount of flame and power below them. As Discovery arcked out of sight into a clear blue sky, I found myself crying.
But that was not the last flight of Discovery that I got to witness. More than a year later, on April 17, 2012, I was working as an astronomy educator at the National Air and Space Museum. The whole city of Washington, DC was buzzing with excitement about Discovery, which was en route to its final home with us.
Riding piggyback atop a modified Boeing 747, Discovery cruised the DC area, making three loops around the National Mall before heading to Virginia. From the top of the National Museum of American History, I was lucky enough to watch its final flight.
Anyone can now visit Discovery at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. When I visit, what impresses me most is how beaten up it looks, compared to the pristine Enterprise which used to reside there. Discovery is a well-used workhorse of a space vehicle, the one that took the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit for us.
I’m not sad that the space shuttle program is over. I believe that ferrying people and equipment from Earth to low orbit is now a routine (if still astonishing!) task, one that private industry will excel at. I can’t wait to see where scientists and engineers will take us next. What would you like to see in the future of space exploration?
Geneviève de Messières is an Astronomy educator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. All photographs by Geneviève de Messières.