In May 2017, a team of eight 3D scanning experts from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office and collections staff from the National Air and Space Museum set out to capture a comprehensive 3D dataset of the largest museum artifact ever to be digitized: Space Shuttle Discovery. It took six tireless weeks to capture Space Shuttle Discovery, inside and out.

An epic project creates an epic amount of data, 4.2 TB to be precise. These datasets were created using a variety of capture techniques including laser scanning, structured light scanning, and photogrammetry. Though the team captured the entire shuttle during this project, processing the data into viewable 3D models is a daunting project in itself. To date, only the exterior has been fully processed, and it is viewable and downloadable online now. You can view it below or on the DPO website.

The primary digitization technique used in this project was photogrammetry, a 3D capture process that involves taking many photographs of an object from as many angles as possible, making sure to capture every crevice and detail. These photos are then fed into specialized software that recognizes landmarks in the photographs and uses them to reconstruct the object in 3D space. This process can be done very simply through a camera phone or, in the case of the Smithsonian, it can be done through a highly precise process meant to capture the objects in archival quality.

To achieve the level of detail desired, the capture team used 50 megapixel cameras and captured the surface of the shuttle in predefined sections, with a 60% overlap between photographs. This required precise planning and coordination between the capture technicians and collections staff, who were spread out  on the ground, in lifts up to 60 feet in the air, and working inside the shuttle crew areas and cargo bay. For an understanding of the scope of coverage in the project, it took over 27,000 photos to capture the entire exterior surface of the shuttle, and 18,000 to capture the interior.


DPO's setup in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

The software visualization below shows some of the 27,000 images that went into creating the exterior model of the shuttle. The white triangles indicate the individual positions the cameras were in when they took each photograph.


The data created from this project is providing unprecedented access to an object to which many people have a personal or emotional connection. 

During my time capturing the underside of the shuttle, I spoke to a lot of people about Discovery and our work: Since I was down on the ground near where the public could stand to view the shuttle, I received a lot of questions about what we were doing. On two separate occasions, someone asked me, from behind the stanchions, if I could see a specific serial number on a tile from my vantage point. These two individuals had family members that were a part of the huge team of scientists and engineers that built this shuttle. They had personal family ties to specific parts of the shuttle, and could point to those tiles to understand their family’s part in creating this piece of American aerospace history.


Smithsonian's Digitzation Program Office collect 3D data of Space Shuttle Discovery.

For the safety of the shuttle, people cannot walk underneath it in the gallery. The public can experience the magnificent object by walking around it from the ground level or up on surrounding walkways in its hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Thanks to the technology collaborations created through this project with Sketchfab and Cesium, you can now go online and zoom in to analyze the surface of the shuttle, down to the serial numbers on the tiles. Cutting edge online 3D viewing tools, like Sketchfab’s massive model viewer, allow users to load this huge dataset gradually as they zoom in, as seen in the tweet below.

The capture team spent two weeks capturing the inside of the shuttle in the same intricate detail as the outside. This data is currently being processed and will be online to view soon. In the meantime, you can experience the inside of the shuttle with a VR headset thanks to a collaboration with Google and their experimental Light Fields VR technology, or through a 360 video hosted by astronauts Charlie Bolden and Kathy Sullivan, who flew on Discovery in 1990. 

Through the collaborations with Sketchfab, Cesium, and Google, we are able to share a piece of human history in breathtaking detail with anyone with an internet connection. Not only can the data be viewed, but thanks to the recent Smithsonian’s Open Access Initiative, this data can be downloaded and remixed by anyone, for free, without asking permission. This project was made possible by generous support provided by Meredith Siegfried Madden and Dr. Peter Madden. Access more of the Smithsonian’s 3D open access data.

Related Topics Spaceflight Human spaceflight Space Shuttle program Spacecraft Behind the scenes
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