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Kim Shiflett

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Before the space shuttle Discovery made its farewell flyover this week, it had to be attached to a 747 in what NASA calls the mate-demate device at the Kennedy Space center in Florida. The Boeing 747, called the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), was an ordinary commercial jet before being modified at NASA to transport shuttles between earthbound locations.

Observers gathered along the coast to watch as the SCA escorted the Discovery shuttle to Washington, where Discovery will be on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It’s not surprising that Discovery looks a little worse for the wear: In 39 different missions, Discovery orbited the Earth 5,830 times and traveled 148,221,675 miles. Highlights of the shuttle’s career include deploying the Hubble Space Telescope, completing the first space-shuttle rendezvous and the final shuttle docking with the Russian space station Mir. Discovery also docked with the International Space Station 13 times and supplied more than 31,000 pounds of hardware for the space laboratory.


The SCA and the space shuttle Discovery on the ramp of the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Earlier, the duo backed out of the mate-demate device. Known as the MDD, the device is a large gantry-like steel structure used to hoist a shuttle off the ground and position it onto the back of the aircraft, or SCA. NASA/Kim Shiflett


The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft carrying space shuttle Discovery backs out of the Shuttle Landing Facility’s mate-demate device at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA/Kim Shiflett


The SCA transporting space shuttle Discovery to its new home takes off from the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at about 7 a.m. EDT. The duo fly south over Brevard County’s beach communities for residents to get a look at the shuttle before it leaves the Space Coast for the last time. NASA/Jim Grossmann


Workers use two cranes to position the sling that will be used to demate the space shuttle Discovery at the Apron W area of Washington Dulles international Airport in Sterling, Va. NASA/Bill Ingalls


The space shuttle Discovery is suspended from a sling held by two cranes after the SCA was pushed back from underneath at Washington Dulles International Airport, Thursday, April 19, 2012, in Sterling, VA. NASA/Bill Ingalls

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Starting next month, NASA will begin delivering its four Space Shuttle orbiters to their final destinations. After an extensive decommissioning process, the fleet -- which includes three former working spacecraft and one test orbiter -- is nearly ready for public display. On April 17, the shuttle Discovery will be attached to a modified 747 Jumbo Jet for transport to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Virginia. Endeavour will go to Los Angeles in mid-September, and in early 2013, Atlantis will take its place on permanent display at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. Test orbiter Enterprise will fly to New York City next month. Gathered here are images of NASA's final days spent processing the Space Shuttle fleet. [35 photos]

In Orbiter Processing Facility-2 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the flight deck of space shuttle Atlantis is illuminated one last time during preparations to power down Atlantis during Space Shuttle Program transition and retirement activities, on December 22, 2011. Atlantis is being prepared for public display in 2013 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. (NASA/Jim Grossmann)

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2011 was a year of global tumult, marked by widespread social and political uprisings, economic crises, and a great deal more. We saw the fall of multiple dictators, welcomed a new country (South Sudan), witnessed our planet's population grow to 7 billion, and watched in horror as Japan was struck by a devastating earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear disaster. From the Arab Spring to Los Indignados to Occupy Wall Street, citizens around the world took to the streets in massive numbers, protesting against governments and financial institutions, risking arrest, injury, and in some cases their lives. Collected here is Part 1 of a three-part photo summary of the last year, covering 2011's first several months. Be sure to also see Part 2, and Part 3 of the series - totaling 120 images in all. [40 photos + 1 more]

A wave approaches Miyako City from the Heigawa estuary in Iwate Prefecture after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the area March 11, 2011. The earthquake, the most powerful ever known to have hit Japan, combined with the massive tsunami, claimed more than 15,800 lives, devastated many eastern coastline communities, and triggered a nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. (Reuters/Mainichi Shimbun)

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Now that the final space shuttle has landed, many thousands involved with it have lost their jobs, and budget cuts loom, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the other projects NASA has been working on recently, and what will be keeping the agency busy in the coming years. There has been a flurry of discoveries and firsts just this year alone, as scientists have discovered a fourth moon around Pluto, and a spacecraft has entered orbit around the asteroid Vesta for the first time. Earlier this month the spacecraft Juno launched toward Jupiter, while workers prepared the next Mars rover, Curiosity, for launch by the end of this year. All of this on top of supporting existing missions to the sun, Mercury, Earth, Mars, Saturn and more. Collected here is just a small recent sampling of NASA's far-reaching projects and missions. [33 photos]

Rising from fire and smoke, NASA's Juno planetary probe, enclosed in its payload fairing, launches atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Leaving from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, on August 5, 2011, the spacecraft will embark on a five-year journey to Jupiter. The solar-powered spacecraft will orbit Jupiter's poles 33 times to find out more about the gas giant's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere and investigate the existence of a solid planetary core. (NASA/Scott Andrews)

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Today marks the end of an era. Three decades of missions came to a close this morning as the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down in Florida after a 13-day trip to the International Space Station. All told, the 135 space shuttle missions have racked up more than 542 million miles in low earth orbit. Commander Chris Ferguson piloted the Atlantis to a safe landing at 5:52 a.m., and the spacecraft will soon undergo processing and decommissioning. It has been an emotional experience for residents and workers along Florida's Space Coast -- some 9,000 shuttle engineers, technicians, and other staff are being laid off, and the main tourism draw for the area has come to an end. Shown here, for one last time, is a look at a full shuttle mission, STS-135, the final flight of Atlantis. Also, be sure to see The History of the Space Shuttle, an earlier entry on In Focus. [39 photos]

A view of the space shuttle Atlantis and its payload on July 10, 2011, seen from the International Space Station. At the rear of the cargo bay is the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module, packed with supplies and spare parts for the ISS. (NASA)

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From its first launch 30 years ago to its final launch scheduled for next Friday, NASA's Space Shuttle program has seen moments of dizzying inspiration and of crushing disappointment. When next week's launch is complete, the program will have sent up 135 missions, ferrying more than 350 humans and thousands of tons of material and equipment into low Earth orbit. Fourteen astronauts have lost their lives along the way -- the missions have always been risky, the engineering complex, the hazards extreme. As we near the end of the program, I'd like to look back at the past few decades of shuttle development and missions as we await the next steps toward human space flight. [61 photos]

Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off from Kennedy Space Center, on April 12, 1981. Commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen were onboard STS-1, the first orbital flight of the Space Shuttle program. (Reuters/NASA/KSC)

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