Discovery To Take Final Flight Aboard Boeing 747
April 16, 2012

Discovery To Take Final Flight Aboard Boeing 747

NASA´s space shuttle Discovery is set to make one more historic launch; although not the type of launch you may be thinking of.

The retired space shuttle will be placed atop a modified Boeing 747 and airlifted from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the Smithsonian in Virginia, where it will be prominently displayed.

That pairing was postponed on Saturday April 14 due to gusty winds, which prevented workers at the Kennedy Space Center from safely hoisting the shuttle atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), reports Robert Z. Pearlman for

NASA´s Enterprise and Endeavour shuttles are also scheduled for one more aerial ride in 2012 aboard an SCA, bound for their final retirement destinations, ultimately ending a significant chapter in NASA´s 30-year Space Shuttle story.

Discovery was finally mounted on top of the jumbo jet on Sunday morning after winds had died down. Work continued throughout the day to secure, or “hard-mate,” the orbiter to the SCA before removing the hoist sling and backing the duo out of the Mate-Demate Device (MDD) early this morning.

With Discovery and the SCA out in the open on Monday, it would give NASA employees, the media, and the general public an opportunity to catch a final good view of Discovery´s last time on top of a 747, Stephanie Stilson, flow director for the transition and retirement for the space shuttle orbiters, told Pearlman.

Among those expected to come and see the Discovery on Monday are the members of its 39th and final spaceflight, the six astronauts who flew the STS-133 mission in March 2011. Stilson, who also led the ground processing for Discovery´s last 11 missions, said seeing the shuttle readied for one final flight was bringing out mixed emotions.

“It´s hard not to be happy, because we have achieved another one of our goals,” Stilson told “That is how we look at things. We have a job to do, and that is to get Discovery to the Smithsonian. So this is the next step to get there. So we´re very happy because everything has gone well to get to this point.”

“But then, when I start to think about the fact that this is last time to do this with Discovery, it is sad. It is not something that we want to have as a last opportunity. But that´s part of the job, that is where we are with the program and the way things are going,” she continued.

“So I´m just going to enjoy it, be happy and allow myself to really see the team at their best. Even if this is one of the last times we do it, at least they're doing it to the best of their ability, very professional, very dedicated, and who can't be happy about that? It´s a great experience," Stilson concluded.

It is also interesting that Discovery just so happened to be paired with the NSA 905 SCA. The very same aircraft was used to first deliver Discovery to the Kennedy Space Center on November 9, 1983. In the three decades since, Discovery was paired with NASA 905 for 14 of its 18 ferry flights.

If all goes accordingly, and the weather permits, the pair should depart Kennedy Space Center sometime Tuesday morning between 10 and 11 a.m. EDT. It will be en route to its new home, the National Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center. Washington DC area residents will have the opportunity to see Discovery before it lands at Dulles International Airport.

The exact route and timing of the flight has yet to be confirmed, due to weather and operational constraints. However, the SCA is expected to fly at approximately 1,500 feet near a number of landmarks in the area, including the National Mall, Reagan National Airport, National Harbor, and the Udvar-Hazy Center [ Best Viewing Site ].

Once the pair land at Dulles, two large cranes will take the place of the MDD to remove Discovery from the SCA. After a day spent off-loading the orbiter, NASA and the Smithsonian will hold an arrival ceremony on Thursday when Discovery will be rolled over to the Udvar-Hazy Center, located adjacent to the airport in Chantilly, Virginia.

The flight crew for Discovery´s ferry will include SCA pilot Bill Rieke and SCA weather pilot Arthur “Ace” Beall.

The pilots were part of a three-day session to ready them for the upcoming flight, which including a program to simulate the flying characteristic of a mated SCA.

“It´s very realistic. The instructors simulate a variety of emergencies during the three-day sessions. System malfunctions and engine failures are practiced repeatedly, including two-engine flights, approaches and landings,” said Beall in a recent statement.

Beall will analyze weather conditions aboard a “Pathfinder” aircraft which flies about 100 miles ahead of the SCA. “The weather pilot advises the SCA crew via radio of the flight conditions on the ferry route,” said Beall. “Describing the situation and explaining the alternate route is a dynamic situation, something that is usually changing all the time.”

Beall noted that the main weather hazard is rain. “The mass of a raindrop at the speeds being flown will damage the shuttle tiles in a matter of seconds, so if any rain is encountered or observed, the weather pilot offers alternate routes and altitudes to the SCA crew,” Beall explained.

“Additionally, the SCA does not have much extra fuel to maneuver significant distances around rain, so finding the most efficient, rain-free route in a short amount of time can be challenging. Turbulence is also a factor,” he said.

Besides Rieke and Beall, there are four more pilots and two flight engineers for the SCA flight. These are “some of the best crew members that I have ever worked with,” said Jeff Moultrie, commander of the flight crew for the ferry mission.

“We also are very lucky to have top-notch flight engineers Henry Taylor and Larry LaRose who do a great job running the systems on the airplane and keeping the pilots on the ℠straight and narrow´,” said Moultrie.

“When flying a mated SCA, there are plenty of eyes watching us,” Moultrie added. Crowds often turn out for a once-in-a-lifetime sight. “From a pilot´s perspective, we always want (to execute) a nice landing,” he added.


Image Caption: Space shuttle Discovery returns to Kennedy Space Center atop a Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, or SCA, on Sept. 21, 2009, following the STS-128 mission to the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA