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Space Shuttle Discovery: An incredible journey

Discovery under construction in Palmdale, Calif., in 1982.

Boeing Photo

Discovery under construction in Palmdale, Calif., in 1982.

When Space Shuttle Discovery and its six-astronaut crew ended a successful 13-day mission on March 9, 2011, it was a bittersweet day for Boeing employees who support America’s shuttle program. 

Mission STS-133 concluded the illustrious 27-year career of the longest-serving veteran of NASA's shuttle fleet. Discovery flew 39 missions, spent 365 days in space, orbited Earth 5,830 times and traveled more than 148 million miles. Since its maiden voyage on Aug. 30, 1984, Discovery deployed 31 satellites, docked with the Russian Mir space station in 1998 and docked with the International Space Station 13 times. 

“All of you have been critical to the success of Discovery and the Space Shuttle program, and it has taken every one of you, performing flawlessly and working as a team, to achieve this level of success,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Space Shuttle program, in a message to employees.   

The construction of the Discovery orbiter began in August 1979 in Palmdale, Calif. Discovery benefited from lessons learned in the construction and testing of orbiters Enterprise, Columbia and Challenger. At rollout, its weight was 6,870 pounds less than Columbia’s, with an empty weight of 151,419 pounds and 176,419 pounds with main engines installed. Boeing employees are proud of their role as the original equipment manufacturer for the shuttle fleet of orbiters.

"Discovery is an amazing spacecraft and she has served her country well."

Bob Kahl, Boeing site director for shuttle operations at Palmdale, was the 107th person hired at the Palmdale site in 1975 and reflected on the occasion. “I’ve been here since day one and I have seen every vehicle built and witnessed all the modifications that were made to each vehicle. The schedule demands were very dynamic with so many subcontractors and suppliers,” Kahl said. “It was very rewarding and everyone took a great deal of ownership and pride – I have never seen a more dedicated group of people.” Kahl was the manager of production control for Discovery and was responsible for making sure the hardware was available for assembly. 

Discovery lifts off for its 39th and final mission, capping off a prolific career in space.

NASA Photo

Discovery lifts off for its 39th and final mission, capping off a prolific career in space.

Discovery rolled out from the Palmdale facility in October 1983. The orbiter traveled over land to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., with final delivery aboard a 747 to Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

Boeing has been providing design engineering and support for the shuttle fleet since the first flight in 1981. Under the Checkout, Assembly and Payload Processing Services (CAPPS) contract at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Boeing supports the preparation and loading of the shuttle payloads. 

"Discovery is an amazing spacecraft and she has served her country well," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said after Discovery’s final landing. "The success of this mission and those that came before it is a testament to the diligence and determination of everyone who has worked on Discovery and the Space Shuttle program, over these many years."

For more information on the shuttle program, visit Boeing’s “shuttle legacy” website: