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This Day in History: Space Shuttle Discovery

On this day in 2011, the Space Shuttle Discovery makes her final landing. The orbiter’s record in service has earned her the title “Champion of the Fleet.” Over the course of nearly three decades, she went back and forth between Earth and space 39 times, traveling nearly 150 million miles.

No other orbiter would complete as many missions—or fly as many miles. Space shuttle Discovery, a NASA summary notes, “is unique among the extraordinary.”

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Discovery was chosen for “Return to Flight” missions after two notable tragedies: the Challenger explosion and the Columbia disaster.

Discovery takes off on her Return to Flight mission (September 29, 1988)

The Return to Flight in 1988 was an especially big deal, bolstering the hopes of a nation that had been shell-shocked when Challenger exploded. Indeed, Ronald Reagan visited the Johnson Space Center just one week before Discovery took to the skies. He addressed the men and women who had been working to return America to space travel.

“Ill fortune can slow us down, but it can’t stop us,” he told the crowd. “You can delay our long trek to greatness, but you cannot halt it. How better can we pay tribute to those who came before us than by continuing their quest for knowledge, their struggle against limits, by continuing to push toward the far frontier?”

The crew of Discovery was taking a great risk, but they had the support of the country—and they were ready to go.

“Our biggest fear was not about launching,” crew member Mike Lounge later said. “It was about not launching. We really wanted to finally get off the ground.” Many Americans must have felt the same way, as at least one newspaper reported them “beginning to camp at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Highway 50 Tuesday as they jockeyed for good viewing positions for Thursday’s scheduled liftoff . . . .”

Discovery’s crew members undoubtedly knew that things could go awry. Commander Rick Hauck worked to assuage his family’s worries, even as he purposefully avoided a guarantee that he would return. “I don’t think it’s a sense of fear,” crew member David Hilmers concluded. “I think it’s more of a sense of respect for what could go on.”

But isn’t that what a nation of pioneers does?

“We’re a nation born of pioneers,” Reagan told that crowd at NASA, “and we’ll always create our future on the frontier. Americans can live no other way. Our early settlers knew great risks and made great sacrifices, but with their sacrifice, they moved the frontier forward and built a great nation. Neither can we stand still nor be content, and we’re not afraid.”

The risks taken that day worked out, obviously. Discovery would make many more trips before she retired and was delivered to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for safekeeping. The Museum strives to preserve the space shuttle exactly as she was when she returned from that last trip to space. The orbiter still carries the same scuffs and dings that she had on this day so long ago.

“I remember the very first tour I gave,” museum curator Jennifer Levasseur recalls. “Somebody said, ‘It looks dirty. Are you planning on cleaning it?’ I said, ‘That’s not dirt. That’s scarring.’ Those streaks are markers of its mileage. They show the incredibly violent process of traveling through the atmosphere.”

Perhaps they also reflect the courage, risks, and perseverance that have always defined the American spirit.

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