As Discovery is retired, an icon mulls America's spacefaring future

April 20, 2012

george.leopold-April 20, 2012

CHANTILLY, Va. – The other day, they celebrated the machine. On Thursday (April 19), they honored those who built, maintained, controlled and flew her.

The occasion was the formal transfer of space shuttle Discovery by NASA to the Smithsonian Institution’s Udvar-Hazy Center, the barn-like building near Dulles International Airport here that serves as an annex to the Air & Space Museum in downtown Washington. Most of the commanders of Discovery’s 39 flights were present to witness Discovery’s retirement after its whirlwind tour of the region aboard a modified Boeing 747 on Tuesday. The locals are still buzzing about it.

Besides getting their first up-close look at Discovery, which shows the scars of more than 5,000 Earth orbits and 39 fiery reentries, the throng that came out to admire her also got to see another legend: a Discovery crew member from a 1998 mission who became the oldest human to fly in space. He also happens to be the first American to have orbited the Earth, and is a former U.S. senator and onetime presidential candidate.

John Herschel Glenn, Jr., now 90, sat dignified on a stage full of dignitaries, delivered brief remarks about man’s unquenchable thirst to explore (“What’s over that next hill?”) and said it was time to move on from the canceled shuttle program to the next steps in manned spaceflight. The living embodiment of the “Right Stuff” posed for a thousand pictures and graciously consented to dozens of interviews with local TV and international press outlets, all the while maintaining the bearing of the Marine Corps test pilot he once was.

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, meets the press following the retirement ceremony for space shuttle Discovery.

Glenn later said he had traveled from his native Ohio to his former home in Virginia to “inspire future generations, I hope, by being here.”

Glenn strongly opposed the decision to end the shuttle program, saying he preferred to end it only after a replacement vehicle was ready to be launched. But he has been less strident than some of his colleagues in the astronaut corps. Decisions have been made, he said, and it’s time to move on.

“I would maybe have preferred to see [the shuttle] still be flying now. I think there’s a lot research we missed by this sort of hiatus. But NASA is coming back; [there are] new programs with unlimited possibilities. We’ll move one thing to another, and that’s it,” Glenn said.

Unspoken was the fact that Glenn was here to make good on a kind of debt to NASA for its decision—controversial at the time—to add a retired Mercury astronaut-turned-politician to a shuttle crew. After three orbits aboard his Mercury Friendship 7 spacecraft in 1962, Glenn logged 134 laps aboard Discovery in 1998. He conducted experiments on space flight and aging and undoubtedly inspired his crewmates.

As he did in 1959 when the original Mercury 7 astronauts were introduced to the world at a Washington press conference, Glenn stole the show here. No one has ever doubted his PR savvy. But Glenn has always been a risk taker. Long ago, in a LIFE magazine profile, Glenn articulated his reasons for gambling “hat, tail and gas mask on something like this.”

“With risks, you gain,” Glenn told LIFE. “I’ve got a theory about this. People are afraid of the future, of the unknown. If a man faces up to it and takes the dare of the future, he can have some control over his destiny. That’s an exciting idea to me, better than waiting with everybody else to see what’s going to happen.”

Pushing 91, Glenn still lives by this creed.

Other Discovery astronauts who were on hand for its retirement party here are renowned for their own firsts. Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot and later command a shuttle mission, came to salute the craft a final time. So did Joe Engle, the astronaut scheduled to walk on the moon on Apollo 17 who was bumped by NASA in favor of geologist astronaut Harrison Schmitt. Engle reminded reporters that he is the only astronaut to have piloted both of the shuttles in the Smithsonian’s collection: Discovery and Enterprise. Engle also commanded NASA’s second shuttle flight aboard Columbia, which broke up during reentry in 2003, killing its crew of seven.

America currently has no way to launch astronauts into orbit; NASA must hitch a ride to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. There was much complaining here about this sad state of affairs.

But Glenn reminded the crowd that ours is a spacefaring nation, and that we must roll up our sleeves, forget our petty differences and find the will and resources to continue our exploration of the solar system.

A slideshow of the Discovery retirement ceremony follows:

Two space enthusiasts stand before shuttle Enterprise prior to the retirement ceremony for shuttle Discovery. Enterprise will be displayed in New York City.

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