Godspeed, Discovery

Space Shuttle Discovery: Five Notable Missions, For Better Or Worse

The space shuttle

Discovery headed to the pad

yesterday for its last trip into space.

The 26-year-old craft has seen a lot in its career, some good, some bad, some odd. Here are five highlights:

5. Being used as an old-folks' tour bus
In 1998 Discovery took John Glenn up to space for a second time. He was 77 at that point, and NASA and Glenn fans tried to make some earnest points about how the flight would be crucial in examining the effects of space and zero-gravity on older people, but essentially it was a publicity-ploy joyride. Discovery was used to such junkets, though: It had transported U.S. Senator Jake Garn to space 13 years earllier, on an equally pointless mission.

4. Delivering broken appliances
Scientists were highly anticipating Discovery's delivery of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, like a dude with a tricked-up Maserati on order or some other dude bringing home a 74-inch HD from Best Buy. Unfortunately, the thing didn't quite work. And getting it fixed was even harder than trying to deal with Best Buy customer service. Eventually repairs were made, and the stunning images and research came through as promised.

3. Free advertising for Stephen Colbert
When NASA got cute with a new node for the International Space Station and had a public vote on what it should be named, Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert jumped on it. His fans made him the winner of the contest, leaving NASA in a bind because, generally, they don't name space station nodes after comedians, living or dead. So they renamed their soon-to-be-delivered ISS treadmill the C.O.L.B.E.R.T. (Google the acronym if you care about the tortured syntax they came up with), and Discovery took it on up to orbit.

2. The last Mir
You have to hand it to the Russians -- when they build a heavy-duty piece of equipment, they use the sucker for all its worth, whether that means transporting whole factories far away from the German invasion in WWII or keeping the Mir alive long past its due date. The space station was a crowded, smelly, dripping, probably dangerous facility before the Russians finally gave it up. Discovery was used for the America's last link-up with it.

1. Go-to shuttle for NASA comebacks
There have been two shuttle disasters, obviously -- the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003. Both times the shuttle program was brought to a complete standstill while the accidents were investigated and the agency did some soul-searching. The first flights after each were tension-ridden affairs, where a second foul-up might have far-reaching effects. Both times NASA called on Discovery, and both times she came through.

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