5 Unusual Facts About Space Shuttle Discovery

Posted on Thu, August 30, 2018

Ever wonder what it’s like to live and work in space? The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum has teamed up with Google Arts & Culture to give you a 360-degree tour of the Museum’s Space Shuttle Discovery. Explore the orbiter with astronauts Kathryn Sullivan and Charles Bolden, crewmembers aboard the STS-31 mission to launch the Hubble Space Telescope.

On August 30, 1984, Space Shuttle Discovery took off on its first mission—beginning its nearly 30 years of space exploration. When Discovery retired in 2011, it was NASA’s oldest and most accomplished orbiter. It flew nearly 150 million miles and spent 365 days in space, flying just about every type of mission during the shuttle era.

While Discovery is hard to miss at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, it's the details help tell the orbiter’s unique and important history.  

Space Shuttle Discovery on display in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. More:

  1. The tiles on the outside of Discovery are actually ceramic insulating materials designed to handle the intense heat created from re-entering Earth’s atmosphere during descent. There are about 23,000 of them and each one is custom made. 
  2. Did you spot the American flag on the side of Discovery? How about the one that appears to be backwards? That’s not a big snafu—it’s actually adhering to the US Flag Code. Regulations require that the star field always faces forward, as if the flag’s waving in the breeze.
  3. Sleeping bags were attached to the walls of the shuttle's interior so that astronauts wouldn’t float away while they slept. No need for alarm clocks—since the early days of the Gemini-era, astronauts have received wake-up call songs from Mission Control. Astronauts could choose their favorite tunes.
  4. On Earth, you get one chance to see the Sun rise or set each day. In space, it’s harder to miss; the Sun rises or sets about every 45 minutes.
  5. In 1990, Discovery deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. At launch, the telescope weighed in at about 24,000 pounds. (It makes sense why the cargo bay, where the telescope was stored, is so big.)

Explore Discovery’s history with over 200 space shuttle artifacts, several digital exhibits, virtual tours, and more, viewable online through Google Arts & Culture.