Shuttle Program Honored As Discovery Makes Final Journey

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Tuesday marked the final flight of NASA‘s oldest surviving space shuttle, as a modified Boeing 747 carrying Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at dawn and transported the vehicle to Dulles Airport just outside of Washington D.C., according to CBS News and various other media outlet reports.

As onlookers watched the flight, which passed by the Potomac River, Reagan National Airport, and the National Mall before reaching its new home at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum annex in Virginia, former astronauts, space enthusiasts who grew up along with the shuttle program, and even the National Geographic Society paused to reflect upon and pay tribute to not only Discovery but to the venerable shuttle program as a whole.

This week, National Geographic unveiled a series of interactive GigaPans (gigapixel panoramas) offering shuttle enthusiasts an unprecedented inside look at Discovery, which first launched on August 30, 1984, and its sister shuttles, Endeavour and Atlantis. These interactive digital images contain billions of pixels and provide virtual tours of Discovery’s flight deck, mid-deck, payload bay, tail cone, airlock, flight deck windows, and more — even the shuttle’s toilet facilities!

According to Dave Mosher of National Geographic News, the Society’s photographers were able to take more than two dozen ultra-high resolution, 360-degree photos of Discovery and the other two NASA orbiters. They, along with other new organizations, were granted “unprecedented access to the hundred-ton spaceships” following the program’s final journey, courtesy of NASA and the US space agency’s primary shuttle service contractor, United Space Alliance.

National Geographic Society Vice President of Digital Media Susan Poulton and Freelance Photojournalist Jon Brack had originally planned to use the GigaPan technology to create a couple of panoramic images, Mosher said. However, they ultimately spent 30 hours in all three shuttles, creating a total of 27 gigapans, including “2.74-gigapixel, zoomable images — equivalent in resolution to about 340 pictures taken with an 8-megapixel iPhone camera” of Discovery’s flight deck, the National Geographic News reporter added.

“The space shuttle is something we always see at a distance. It has always been this forbidden place. We wanted to get pics of everything as close as possible, and we knew GigaPan’s high-definition panoramas would allow you to zoom in intimately close,” Brack told Mosher on Monday. “It’s a whole new way to look at these spacecraft.”

After 39 flights, Discovery will be permanently sealed at its new home, Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, which according to Irene Klotz of Reuters is “the nation’s official repository for space artifacts.” Meanwhile, Chip Reid of CBS News reports that space shuttles Enterprise and Endeavor will head to New York and Los Angeles, respectively, while Atlantis will remain at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

For many veterans of the shuttle program, Discovery’s last ride marked the end of an era.

“It’s sad to see this happening,” NASA’s Nicole Stott, who was part of the final Discovery crew during the STS-133 mission in March 2011, told Reuters on Tuesday. “But you look at it and you just can’t help but be impressed by it. That’s my hope now, that every time someone looks at that vehicle they are impressed, that they feel that this is what we can do when we challenge ourselves.”

Likewise, former astronaut Mike Mullane, who took part in three shuttle missions, called it “a very emotional, poignant, bittersweet moment“¦ When it’s all happening you think, ℠This will never end,’ but we all move on.”

As previously reported here at RedOrbit, Discovery’s final flight had originally been scheduled for Saturday, April 14. However, that flight was delayed due to wind gusts which kept workers at the Kennedy Space Center from safely mounting the shuttle atop the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) that ultimately transported it to the Smithsonian.

Image Credits: Jon Brack/National Geographic

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