Words and Images from Ed Felker

Return to Flight


The Space Shuttle chapter in American history is one rich in pride and pain. And, sadly, it is one that can at last be written. The shuttle Discovery felt the atmosphere push across her wings — albeit a little more slowly than she’s used to — for the last time today.

Much of the Washington, DC area got to see the spectacle of the shuttle, affixed to a 747, being escorted by a T-38 Talon as it flew over the city and surrounding suburbs in multiple passes before landing at Dulles International Airport. In the coming days, it will be de-mated from the carrier craft and towed to the adjacent Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. This, by the way, is a wonderful museum I highly recommend.


As I waited along with many thousands of others near the airport for Discovery‘s arrival, I spotted this girl literally giddy with excitement. The atmosphere was infectious. People in the midst of a traffic nightmare, eager to find a vantage point but without a hint of aggression or impatience, met strangers in the cars next to them and smiled in anticipation. We had gotten here in time. We were going to see it. We were all going to see it.

In 1986, the Challenger disaster forced the suspension of the shuttle program for nearly three years. And in 2003, when the Columbia and crew were lost on re-entry, the program was again suspended. And in both instances when it came time to return, with tragedy still clear in the national memory, the question was hard not to ask: Why do we do it? And in both instances, the same craft served as the Return to Flight ship. And the answer to the question was painted on its side: Discovery.

Whatever the future of space exploration holds, it will not involve the shuttle. But Discovery served us well, and will serve us again as millions of people will now get to see it. Years later when I return to the museum and stand in Discovery‘s shadow, I will think of this day. I might even wonder where that giddy little girl is. Maybe her experience alongside Rt. 28 today will shape her career. Who knows, maybe she will be one of the next generation of explorers, the next to return to flight.

9 Responses

  1. Beautiful post, Ed. You verbalize all the feelings about this particular American thing so well.

    April 17, 2012 at 8:53 pm

  2. Joel Thompson

    That was awesome, Ed. Felt as if I was there myself. Kind of wish I was…

    April 17, 2012 at 11:14 pm

  3. Great photos! The news today reminded me of when I first saw the shuttle on a 747 in 1980 or so and wrote a blog entry about it.

    Thanks for sharing.

    April 18, 2012 at 1:29 am

  4. Wonderful! I love the picture of the little girl. In the 1980’s we were able to introduce our children to a couple of Shuttle landings in the California desert. They were quite young and have never forgotten it. I am really a little sad that this particular chapter has closed. Debra

    April 18, 2012 at 6:49 pm

  5. What a fabulous shot. What is that small plane next to the shuttle? Sure gives you perspective in the size. Can’t believe I totally missed this flight. I didn’t know about it until I got home that night.

    April 18, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    • Oh that little fella? Just a fighter jet escort! It really is mind blowing when you see that scale in context. Standing next to the shuttle in the museum is quite daunting, you HAVE to see that museum. The Enola Gay is there, among other priceless treasures, now including Discovery.

      April 18, 2012 at 10:21 pm

      • Someone else told me about that museum as well. I need to put it on my “must visit” list. Thanks for letting me know.

        April 18, 2012 at 10:25 pm

        • Not sure if this falls in your area of interest, but another wonderful museum right nearby is the NRA museum. The two together make a nice full day. The NRA museum is beautifully designed and has an incredible collection of historic firearms displayed in easy to navigate, eye pleasing galleries.

          April 18, 2012 at 10:32 pm

  6. That first picture is great with the three different sized flying machines.

    May 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm

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