Historic legacy for NASA's pioneering shuttle Discovery (photos)

Accomplished NASA shuttle Discovery to retire following 39th mission.

James Martin
1 of 28 Flickr user chagood

The end of an era for NASA

This week's launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery's Mission STS-133 will mark the end of an era for NASA.
Since its inaugural launch on August 30, 1984 (Mission STS-41-D), Discovery has spent more than 322 days in space, completing 5,247 orbits around the Earth, delivering dozens of astronauts into the cosmos, and playing host to hundreds of research projects.
Here, Discovery blasts off from Launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at dawn on April 5, 2010, during Mission STS-131.
2 of 28 NASA

Into the blue

Discovery approaches the International Space Station on October 25, 2007, with Earth's blue waters and white clouds below.
3 of 28 NASA


Discovery releases the Hubble Space Telescope over the Carribean on April 25, 1990, during Mission STS-31.
The most powerful visual aid ever put into space, the Hubble has captured hundreds of spectacular optical, ultraviolet, and near-infrared images. The data gleaned has led to breakthroughs in astrophysics, including the accurate determination of the rate of the universe's expansion.
4 of 28 NASA

Robotic probe Ulysses

The robotic probe Ulysses was deployed from Discovery in 1990 to study the sun. Ulysses' odyssey ultimately lasted more than 18 years and yielded valuable new knowledge about our local star.
5 of 28 NASA

Senator Jake Garn on the KC-135

Senator Jake Garn, seen here aboard the KC-135 training plane at Johnson Space Center, flew on Discovery as a payload specialist during NASA Mission STS-51-D in 1985, making him the first sitting U.S. senator in space.
6 of 28 NASA

The Orbiting Retrievable Far and Extreme Ultraviolet Spectrometer telescope

The Orbiting Retrievable Far and Extreme Ultraviolet Spectrometer telescope, mounted on the Shuttle Pallet Satellite carrier and held on the end of Discovery's Remote Manipulator System arm.
A tool used to study the gaseous composition of interstellar clouds, the Orbiting Retrievable Far and Extreme Ultraviolet Spectrometer project studied the life cycle of stars, providing information on how stars are born and how they die.
7 of 28 NASA


Discovery lifts off Pad B at the Kennedy Space Center on September 12, 1993, to begin Mission STS-51.
8 of 28 NASA


The Ulysses spacecraft was deployed from Discovery on October 6, 1990, and eventually got closer to the Sun than any piece of research equipment had before. The Ulysses featured two propulsion modules, the Inertial Upper Stage and the Payload Assisted Module.
9 of 28 NASA

Tracking and Data Relay Satellite communications satellite

Discovery's 7th flight into space, STS-26, was launched September 29, 1988.
Functioning in geosynchronous orbit, 22,300 miles above Earth, the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite communications satellite, seen here, was launched during NASA's "Return to Flight" mission, following the Challenger disaster.
10 of 28 NASA

Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite

In 1992, during mission STS-48, the Discovery launched the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite.
Ten sensors and measuring instruments aboard the UARS conducted the most detailed assessment ever of Earth's troposphere, the upper level of the planet's atmosphere, including the ozone layer.
11 of 28 NASA

First female pilot

Eileen Collins was the first woman to ever pilot a Space Shuttle when she flew Discovery in 1995 during Mission STS-63. During the mission, Discovery docked with the Russian space station Mir.
12 of 28 NASA

Discovery's payload bay, showing Spacelab

In this stunning, January 22, 1992, view of Discovery's payload bay, we can see the International Microgravity Laboratory 1 and Spacelab module, with a view of the Red Sea and part of the Sinai Peninsula in the background.
13 of 28 NASA/Tom Farrar, Scott Haun, Raphael Hernandez

Mach diamonds

The blue cones of light known as mach diamonds seen below Discovery's three main engines during the launch of flight STS-120 on October 23, 2007. The diamonds are caused by shock waves created by the exhaust of an aerospace propulsion system.
14 of 28 NASA

Shuttle is silhouetted

Discovery ends its 26th flight, Mission STS-96, at Kennedy's brightly lit Shuttle Landing Facility, and is seen silhouetted while it deploys its drag chute.
15 of 28 NASA, ESA, E. Jullo (JPL/LAM), P. Natarajan (Yale), and J-P. Kneib (LAM)

Galaxy cluster Abell 1689

The galaxy cluster Abell 1689, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope.
16 of 28 Boeing


The LEASAT satellite series, which would eventually provide worldwide communications-satellite services to the Department of Defense.
LEASAT 1 was launched during Discovery's first mission, STS-41-D, on August 30, 1984.
17 of 28 NASA

Hubble sets sail

Cargo bay camera's view of the Hubble Space Telescope when it was released during Mission STS-31 on April 25, 1990.
18 of 28 NASA

Underside thermal protection

Discovery's underside thermal protection tiles can be seen in this image taken during Mission STS-114's third session of extravehicular activities in 2005.
19 of 28 NASA

John Glenn

In 1998, during Discovery Mission STS-95, 77-year-old John Glenn became the oldest person ever to visit space.
20 of 28 NASA

Galaxy NGC 300

Galaxy NGC 300, in a sharp image from the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys.
NGC 300 lies 6.5 million light years away. The image spans about 7,500 light years across and highlights Hubble's unique ability to distinguish so many stars in a densely packed galaxy.
21 of 28 NASA

Floating over the South Pacific

NASA Astronaut Mark C. Lee floats alongside Discovery on September 16, 1994, high over the South Pacific.
22 of 28 STS-114 Crew, NASA

International Space Station

The International Space Station is the largest human-made object ever to orbit the Earth, and Discovery has performed both research and ISS assembly missions during its nearly 30-year career in space.
23 of 28 NASA

Boomerang Nebula's symmetrical clouds

This Hubble image shows the Boomerang Nebula's symmetrical clouds, which are created by high-speed winds of gas and dust blowing from an aging star at speeds of nearly 600,000 kilometers per hour.
24 of 28 NASA/Kevin O'Connell, Scott Haun

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

Discovery prepares to land on Runway 15 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on June 14, 2008, following the STS-124 Mission. During the mission, Discovery delivered the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's large Japanese Pressurized Module and its remote manipulator system to the International Space Station.
25 of 28 NASA

Solar array experiment panel

The solar array experiment panel for the OAST-1 payload, a package of several advanced space technology experiments, onboard the Discovery on September 6, 1984.
26 of 28 NASA

Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module

The Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, one of the pressurized modules that carry equipment, experiments, and supplies, is seen in Discovery's payload bay during Mission STS-128.
27 of 28 NASA

Forward Reaction Control System

Workers in the Orbiter Processing Facility watch as Discovery's Forward Reaction Control System is lowered into position in preparation for Mission STS-114.
The Forward Reaction Control System provides the thrust for pitch, yaw, and roll.
28 of 28 NASA

Discovery will be the first of NASA's shuttle fleet to retire

This fish-eye view shows off Discovery's cockpit as it was configured for the STS-95 Mission. Commander Curtis Brown's seat is on the left, with Pilot Steve Lindsey's on the right.
On several occasions, Discovery has been the first shuttle to venture into new territory. And as it ventures toward retirement, the legendary vehicle makes history once again.
Following its return from its current mission, which, after many months of delays is set to launch this week, Discovery will be the first of NASA's shuttle fleet to be put out to pasture.

More Galleries