"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Boy Meets a Space Shuttle

When I learned I had been selected to attend a NASA Social commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope in Washington DC, I knew I needed an extra day in town. Though a longtime space enthusiast, I had never seen an authentic space shuttle in person. Last Wednesday, after taking the earliest flight into BWI Airport, I drove down onto the Capital Beltway, breezed past the road leading to my childhood home, and headed straight for the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Though I could partially see the shuttle on the far end of the museum, I decided to savor my anticipation. First I ate lunch and strolled along a terrace overlooking the vast Boeing Aviation Hangar. After this playful exercise in procrastination, I walked through the cavernous entrance and stood almost nose to nose with Discovery.

The above video hopefully gives a good sense of scale. Though 6’ 1” tall, I found myself dwarfed by Discovery. The shuttle is 37 meters long (122 feet). In another clip, I try to capture the shuttle’s height of 17m (57ft). The wingspan is 24m (78ft). I took these dimensions from a museum display, of which there are many helpful ones placed around the hangar. Discovery weighs over 73,000kg (over 161,000 pounds). And having said the weight, let us keep in mind that this bird is a glider!

One more clip for fun:

Discovery is hard to shoot. As I found to be the case throughout the packed museum, you can’t get back far enough and retain an unobstructed view. The upside is there are wonderful opportunities to juxtapose big and small, old and recent.

Look closely at the below image. Lots to consider here. At the bottom of the image is an Apollo “Boilerplate” Command Module (test unit, but the inflatable ring around it flew with Apollo 11). To its left sits a Gemini module used to test gliding technology. The gliding sail, ultimately abandoned in favor of parachute/water landing, partially obstructs Discovery (a glider design that made it into operation). Now pan to the right and see an Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket. It launches from beneath a cruising plane to deliver small satellites into orbit. A half-century of government and commercial space ventures in a single view!

Ultimately, I sat down on a bench next to Discovery, letting the boy/romantic in me have some time to sit quietly. I thought of the Shuttle Columbia poster that hung in my room when I was a kid. I thought of how I take personal pride in the shuttle program the way my parents and grandparents take a personal pride in the Apollo moon landings. I felt renewed desire to actively participate in space exploration and advocacy.

The Space Shuttle Discovery flew 39 missions from 1984 until 2011. It delivered the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit and later flew two servicing missions. It docked with two space stations. And it was the shuttle that twice returned us to space after the tragic losses of Challenger and Columbia. Discovery was both home and chariot for heroes.

Coming Soon:
My next planned blog post will focus on the #Hubble25 NASA Social that I and 49 other bloggers took part in. That event took place on Thursday at the Newseum in Washington DC and at Goddard Space Flight Center.


  1. Awesome rundown, and great pictures, Jake! So glad you got to be a part of this!! :)

    1. Thank you, Heather! It was perfect timing. I already had the week off from work and have been itching to get back to Washington DC. Even got to hang out with a couple of high school friends I hadn't seen in over a decade. I love it when things come together like this.