Space Shuttle Discovery – NASA’s 3rd Operational Space shuttle


Space Shuttle Discovery was the third operational space shuttle. It was the third orbiter built and the lightest one because of its lightweight thermal blanket material. Discovery was commonly referred to as OV-103, for Orbiter Vehicle-103. Discovery was first flown in 1984 and retired in 2011.

Space Shuttle Discovery Picture

Specs: Empty Weight: 151,419 lbs at rollout and 171,000 lbs with main engines installed.
Flew 39 times.

Space Shuttle Discovery was named after one of two ships that were used by the British explorer James Cook in the 1770s during voyages in the South Pacific that led to the discovery of the Hawaiian Islands. Another of his ships was the Endeavour, the namesake of NASA’s orbiter. Cook also used Discovery to explore the coasts of southern Alaska and north-western Canada. During the American Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin made a safe conduct request for the British vessel because of the scientific importance of its research.

Upgrades and Features

Discovery benefited from lessons learned in the construction and testing of Enterprise, Columbia and Challenger. At rollout, its weight was some 6,870 pounds less than Columbia. Two orbiters, Challenger and Discovery, were modified at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to enable them to carry the Centaur upper stage in the payload bay. These modifications included extra plumbing to load and vent Centaur’s cryogenic (L02/LH2) propellants (other IUS/PAM upper stages use solid propellants), and controls on the aft flight deck for loading and monitoring the Centaur stage. No Centaur flight was ever flown and after the loss of Challenger it was decided that the risk was too great to launch a shuttle with a fuelled Centaur upper stage in the payload bay.

Construction Milestones

29 January 1979: Contract Award
27 August 1979:  Start long lead fabrication of Crew Module
20 June 1980: Start fabrication lower fuselage
10 November 1980: Start structural assembly of aft-fuselage
8 December 1980: Start initial system installation aft fuselage
2 March 1981: Start fabrication/assembly of payload bay doors
19 October 1981: Start detailed fabrication/assembly of body flap
26 October 1981: Start initial system installation, crew module, Downey
4 April 1982: Start initial system installation upper forward fuselage
16 March 1982: Mid-fuselage on dock, Palmdale
30 March 1982: Elevons on dock, Palmdale
30 April 1982: Wings arrive at Palmdale from Grumman
30 April 1982: Lower forward fuselage on dock, Palmdale
16 July 1982: Upper forward fuselage on dock, Palmdale
5 August 1982: Vertical stabilizer on dock, Palmdale
3 September 1982: Start of Final Assembly
15 October 1982: Body flap on dock, Palmdale
11 January 1983: Aft fuselage on dock, Palmdale
25 February 1983: Complete final assembly and closeout installation, Palmdale
28 February 1983: Start initial subsystems test, power-on, Palmdale
13 May 1983: Complete initial subsystems testing
26 July 1983: Complete subsystems testing
12 August 1983: Completed Final Acceptance
16 October 1983: Rollout from Palmdale
5 November 1983: Overland transport from Palmdale to Edwards
9 November 1983: Delivery to Kennedy Space Center
20 June 1984: Flight Readiness Firing
30 August 1984: First Flight of Discovery (41-D)


1. 41-D (30 August 1984) – First Discovery mission. Launched two communications satellites, including LEASAT F2.

STS-41-D was the first flight of Space Shuttle Discovery and the 12th shuttle mission. The Discovery orbiter was launched on its maiden flight on 30 August 1984. The mission lasted 6 days, 56 minutes, with landing on Runway 17 at Edwards AFB on 5 September.  It was transported back to KSC on 10 September.

2. 51-A (8 November, 1984) – Launched two and rescued two communications satellites including LEASAT F1.  Featured the third landing at Kennedy Space Center.

3. 51-C (24 January 1985) –  First mission dedicated to Department of Defense. U.S. Air Force Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster deployed. STS-51C marked the 100th human spaceflight to achieve orbit.

4. 51-D (12 April 1985) – Launched two communications satellites: TELESAT-l (ANIK C-1) and LEASAT F3.

5. 51-G (17 June, 1985) – Sultan Salman al-Saud was the first Saudi Arabian in space. Launched two communications satellites.

6. 51-I (27 August 1985) –  Launched two communications satellites including LEASAT F4. Recovered LEASAT F3.

7. STS-26 (29 September 1988) – First  ‘Return to Flight’ mission after the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. This was the first mission to use the original Space Transportation System numbering system since STS-9, and the first to have all crew members wearing pressure suits for launch and landing since STS-4.

8. STS-29 (13 March 1989) – The 3rd mission after the Challenger disaster. Launched TDRS.

9. STS-33 (22 November, 1989) – Launched DOD Magnum ELINT satellite.

10. STS-31 (24 April 1990) – Launched Hubble Space Telescope. First use of carbon brakes at landing. Launch marked the first time since January 1986 that two Space Shuttles had been on the launch pad at the same time – Discovery on 39B and Columbia on 39A.

11. STS-41 (6 October 1990) – Launched the Ulysses probe. Ulysses was a joint venture of NASA and the European Space Agency. It was designed to study the Sun at all latitudes. It was originally scheduled for launch in 1986 aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.

12. STS-39 (28 April 1991) – Launched DOD Air Force Program satellite.

13. STS-48 (12 September 1991) – Launch of Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS).

14. STS-42 (22 January 1992) – Carried into orbit the International Microgravity Laboratory-1 (IML-1), a pressurized manned Spacelab module. Canada sent its first woman astronaut, Roberta Bondar, into space on this mission.

15. STS-53 (2 December 1992) – Launched Department of Defense payload.

16. STS-56 (8 April 1993) – Atmospheric Laboratory (ATLAS-2).

17. STS-51 (12 September 1993) – Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS).

18. STS-60 (3 February 1994) – The first mission of the US / Russian Shuttle-Mir Program, which carried the first Russian cosmonaut, Sergei K. Krikalev to fly aboard a Space Shuttle. The mission carried the Wake Shield Facility experiment and a SPACEHAB module into orbit, and carried out a live bi-directional audio and downlink link-up with the cosmonauts aboard the Russian Space Station Mir.

19. STS-64 (9 September 1994) – Carried the LIDAR In-Space Technology Experiment (LITE), a project to measure atmospheric parameters from a space platform.

20. STS-63 (3 February 1995) – The second mission of the US / Russian Shuttle-Mir Program, which carried out the first rendezvous of the American Space Shuttle with Mir Space Stationr. STS-63 was the first mission to see the use of the new full-pressure Advanced Crew Escape System Pressure Suit, which eventually replaced the partial-pressure Launch-Escape Suit.

21. STS-70 (13 July 1995) – Launch and deployment of the 7th Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) by means of the two-stage Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) solid rocket. STS-70 marked the maiden flight of the new Block 1 orbiter main engine.

22. STS-82 (11 February 1997) – Second servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Discovery underwent a nine-month Orbiter Maintenance Down Period (OMDP) in Palmdale California. The vehicle was outfitted with a 5th set of cryogenic tanks and an external airlock to support missions to the International Space Station. Discovery departed Palmdale, California, riding piggy-back on a modified Boeing 747 at 10:01am EDT 28 June 1996 and arrived at Kennedy Space Center on 29 June 1996.

23. STS-85 (7 August 1997) – Carried a complement of payloads in the cargo bay: the Cryogenic Infrared Spectrometers and Telescopes for the Atmosphere-Shuttle Pallet Satellite-2 (CRISTA-SPAS-02); the Japanese Manipulator Flight Development (MFD); the Technology Applications and Science-01 (TAS-1) and the International Extreme Ultraviolet Hitchhiker-02 (IEH-02).

24. STS-91 (2 June 1998) – Final Shuttle / Mir Docking Mission.

25. STS-95 (29 October 1998) – Second space flight of John Glenn, who broke the record for oldest person to go into space. Pedro Duque became the first Spaniard in space.

26. STS-96 (27 May 1999) – First flight to dock with the International Space Station.

27. STS-103 (19 December 1999) – Third servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

28. STS-92 (11 October 2000) – STS-92 marked the 100th mission of the Space Shuttle. An assembly flight that brought the Z-1 Truss, Control Moment Gyros, Pressurized Mating Adapter-3 (PMA-3) (mounted on a Spacelab pallet) and two DDCU (Heat pipes) to the International Space Station.

29. STS-102 (8 March 2001) – Resupplying the ISS and rotating the Expedition 1 and Expedition 2 crews.

30. STS-105 (10 August 2001) – International Space Station crew and supplies delivery for Expedition 2 and Expedition 3.

In 2002, Discovery underwent an over two year Orbiter Maintenance Down Period that provided 99 upgrades and 88 special tests, including a number of changes to make it safer for flight. Each wing contains new sensors that are able to take 20,000 samples per second and detect micrometeorite or other impacts. There are 22 temperature sensors and 66 accelerometers. Discovery also has a new 50-foot inspection boom that can be used to check Discovery’s underside for damage.

31. STS-114 (26 July 2005) – First return to flight since Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster, tested safety improvements and resupplied the ISS. Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot and command a Space Shuttle. She was the first astronaut to fly the space shuttle through a complete 360-degree pitch maneuver. This was necessary so astronauts aboard the ISS could take photographs of the shuttle’s belly, to ensure there was no threat from debris-related damage to the shuttle.

32. STS-121 (4 July 2006) The second return to flight mission since the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster. Tested new safety and repair techniques, delivered supplies, equipment and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Reiter from Germany to the ISS.

33. STS-116 (9 December 2006) – Delivery and attachment of the International Space Station’s third port truss segment (the P5 truss), major rewiring of the station’s power system, and exchange of ISS Expedition 14 personnel.

34. STS-120 (23 October 2007) – Delivered the Harmony module and reconfigured a portion of the station in preparation for future assembly missions.

35. STS-124 (31 May 2008) – International Space Station crew rotation and assembly (carried and assembled the Kibo JEM PM module).

36. STS-119 (15 March 2009) – ISS crew rotation and assembly of a fourth starboard truss segment (ITS S6) and a fourth set of solar arrays and batteries.

37. STS-128 (28 August 2009) International Space Station crew rotation and ISS resupply using the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. Also carrying the C.O.L.B.E.R.T treadmill named after Stephen Colbert.

38. STS-131 (5 April 2010) Multi-Purpose Logistics Module loaded with supplies and equipment for the International Space Station

39. STS-133 (3 February 2011) Planned International Space Station flight. Final mission for Discovery and last flight of the Space Shuttle program.

Did you know?

Other famous ships have carried the name Discovery, including one used by Henry Hudson to explore Hudson Bay in Canada as well as search for what was hoped to be the northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1610 and 1611. Another, based on whaling ship design, was used by the British Royal Geographical Society for an expedition to the North Pole in 1875. This organization then built another Discovery in 1901 to conduct its Antarctic expedition that concluded in 1904. This ship still exists and is being preserved by the Society.


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