NASA celebrates 40 years of Discovery, the longest-serving Space Shuttle

OV-103 was there for Hubble and the assembly of the ISS

Never one to ignore a bit of history, NASA this week marked the 40th anniversary of Space Shuttle Discovery's public debut during a rollout at the Palmdale manufacturing plant in California on October 16, 1983.

Discovery had been under construction by Rockwell International since 1979 and its maiden flight took place in 1984.

Discovery was the third fully operational orbiter to be built after Columbia and Challenger. Things might have been different had the Approach and Landing Test vehicle Enterprise been refitted for orbital operations, but instead only the Structural Test Article was used – eventually becoming Challenger.

While it might not have been the first to orbit, Discovery is the longest-serving Space Shuttle. Designated OV-103, the spacecraft flew 39 missions over more than 26 years before its retirement in 2011.

Discovery is also notable for flying almost every mission envisioned for the Space Shuttle, including launching the Hubble Space Telescope in 1988 and participating in the International Space Station assembly.

It notched up several notable missions, performing the first mission in the Shuttle-Mir program and was the first to carry a cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev, on a US spacecraft. Discovery also ferried veteran astronaut John Glenn, then aged 77, to orbit. And there were plans for Discovery to become the first Air Force Shuttle, with a launch planned from Vandenburg Air Force Base set to take place in 1986, but the Challenger disaster put paid to those plans.

Discovery experienced the Space Shuttle program's first launch abort on its maiden flight, occurring four seconds before liftoff after two of the three main engines had already ignited. It was used as the Return To Flight orbiter after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. The latter required two Return To Flight missions from the orbiter as engineers struggled with foam being shed from the Space Shuttle's external tank.

Discovery was also the first Space Shuttle to be retired. The orbiter's last mission was STS-133 in February 2011. Shortly after landing, the orbiter was decommissioned and transported to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia in 2012 for public display, replacing the Enterprise. ®

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