Discovery: The birth of a legend
In which we take a look at Discovery's formative years when she looked more Airfix kit than spacecraft
This week the Space Shuttle Discovery is set to make its finally flight – after which it will be decommissioned, sent to a museum and it will spend the rest of its days as a monument to human endeavour and achievement and to dreams fulfilled and to dreams broken. I shall spend this week remembering the achievements of this iconic vehicle.
Day One – Early memories and some of Discovery's baby photos
I was just five years old when the Space Shuttle Columbia – the first of Nasa’s next generation of manned-spacecraft – pushed through the clouds and punched its way into the heavens.
Then, in 1984 (at the age of eight), I watched the maiden launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery on John Craven’s Newsround on my parent’s tiny 12in black and white TV – it is one of my earliest TV memories.
At the time, it was the first spacecraft launch of any kind I had seen and I just remember thinking how cool the Shuttle was – and that I wanted one of my own – a few hours later I had my very own Space Shuttle Discovery in the best yellow 3D pixellated glory that Lego could provide.
The technicalities of the vehicle (aside from a shortage of ‘two-ers’ from which I could build my own) were obviously irrelevant to me, but I did know it was something new and exciting.
People talked out the Shuttle ushering in a ‘new era’ or reusable space travel. It would be 15 times cheaper to fly (per kilo of payload) than the old Apollo-era Saturn V rockets. After its mission, it would take less than two weeks to prepare the craft for its next launch – meaning that mankind could almost constant access to space.
Sadly, rather than 15 times cheaper, the Space Shuttle turned out to cost some £423million per launch – that’s about three times more expensive than the Saturn V.
The two-week turn around time turned out to be around three to six months because the ‘reusable’ craft needed to be practically rebuilt every time it was used. And then, barely five years after the Shuttle’s maiden flight, the Shuttle Challenger broke up just 73 seconds after launch, killing its seven-astronaut crew and exposing to the world that the Shuttle was a needlessly complex, fragile and potentially dangerous vehicle.
Despite its (arguably) complete failure live up to its cheap, re-usable billing, the Space Shuttle represents the troubled birth of mankind’s quest to make space as accessible and traversable as we made the, once, equally alien and perilous oceans.
But, while its failures represent a loss of innocence when it comes to manned spaceflight, its successes – and there are many – show that, despite the setbacks, mankind will never abandon its space-bound dreams – it will just take a different craft (probably privately built) to fullfil them.
It is for this reason, that we can mourn the loss of the shining white space plane that fuelled so many of my childhood games and fantasies – it even fuelled a few advances in science and human knowledge as a bonus!
Since its maiden flight, the Space Shuttle Discovery has carried more crew members – 246 – than any space vehicle. It has carried the first female to ever pilot a spacecraft, the oldest person to fly in space, the first African-American to perform a spacewalk, the first Russian cosmonaut to fly on an American spacecraft and the first sitting member of the US Congress to fly in space.
Discovery was the third orbiter to be built and it took four years to complete...
...here are some Discovery's baby snaps:
Tomorrow: Discovery's greatest hits