A few months before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I took charge of one of the Smithsonian’s five most iconic artifacts: the space shuttle. Discovery (the other four, for me, being those adorable pandas from the zoo, Dorothy’s sparkly slippers at American History, a huge blue diamond, and maybe that plane the brothers from Ohio made). My career as a curator is full of personal and professional highlights, but as a child of the 1980s, this meant something because it was our spatialship. In elementary school and beyond, I witnessed the program’s devastating ups and downs. I even skipped college classes to watch John Glenn’s STS-95 flight to a packed house at the University of Michigan Student Union. To become DiscoveryThe curator of wouldn’t make me unique (I owe a great debt to my predecessor, curator emeritus, Dr. Valerie Neal), especially since there are three other space shuttle orbiters supported in other fine museums. What makes my job really special, what people from my hairstylist to the kids on my sons’ hockey teams tell me is “the coolest job ever”, is how I enjoy the orbiter as a machine built by human hands, inscribed with an incredible story, which I can now tell our millions of visitors.
So what made my January 2022 visit to the Smithsonian’s Space Shuttle Orbiter in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center’s McDonnell Space Hangar so different from countless previous visits? To start, I have to go inside the orbiter! Of course I had seen Discovery before, even from the inside, but on this first visit as a curator, elements of my journey came to mind that connected me more closely to the artifact. My maternal grandfather, Louis LaManes, was a great storyteller. His long, monologue-like stories fascinated me, most often when it came to stories of machines or his work. He had an incredible selection of tools in his basement, kept in a work area that always smelled of oil and metal. He spent his career as an electrician for Detroit Edison, breaking into people’s homes and fixing wiring. My family says I sound like him. My dad, on the other hand, is a machinist, having started his own tool and die business in Toledo, Ohio when I was just a kid and the space shuttle flights in were in their infancy. Even today, I can walk into his machine shop, now run by my older brother, and enjoy turning metals into parts for other machines – little bits of metal all over the floor. When I examine objects as a curator, like the IMAX camera used to capture iconic documentaries filmed by astronauts, I pay attention to the marks along the metal showing where it was cut and milled. It all fed my senses back inside Discoverybecause it was now my turn, as a child and grandson of people who worked with their hands, to appreciate this amazing technological creation.
At the end of January this year, I joined a team of orbiter engineers and Museum colleagues to review Discovery closely from the inside, performing an inspection similar to what you might do with your car every year. This vehicle is not, however, a mid-size sedan or a high-end race car. He spent 365 days off our planet!
Our inspection, an annual COVID-delayed inspection of the engine compartment for hydraulic fluid leaks, has become a crawl opportunity (actual crawl is required) in other areas. Somehow, in our years of filming TV shows and scanning the orbiter for its 3d model, we never thought of recording our work for ourselves. From documenting the state of the orbiter, providing instructional videos for staff, educational programs for our guides, and probably a thousand other things, we brought in our in-house film crew to cover the job from start to finish. My talented colleagues from education and special events brought their 4K HD cameras and captured views of almost any surface, indoors or out. We will now have our own library of videos to share with you for years to come. And we did this to protect Discovery. Museums generally do NOT like to interact with artifacts. But sometimes we have our reasons and can turn them into opportunities, with planning and caution, to produce a library of material and avoid crawling inside, risking damage, every time we want something new.
But let’s get back to those liquid leaks, the real reason for this visit to Discovery. While we can’t share images of the finds (there are some sensitive orbiter technologies that the government is keeping restricted), I can say that we found more leaks than we had hoped. The engine compartment is a tangle of pipes, metal beams and wiring, and you shouldn’t enter it without some near-acrobatic ability. Hydraulic fluid has flowed through manned aircraft and spacecraft like blood through veins, and just because the lines are drained after a vehicle is taken out of service doesn’t mean the fluids are completely gone. Over time, loose clogs and aging can allow remaining fluid to drain slowly. You’ll notice we even keep small absorbent pads under some planes for this reason. In the almost three years that have passed since we have been able to inspect Discovery, a few small puddles of water accumulated inside the engine compartment and drip areas were noticeable. Luckily, the issues weren’t so bad that they couldn’t be cleaned up. Sources of leaks have been repaired, padded and wrapped. Next time we will check those repairs, remove the padding that is no longer needed and check for new leaks. This review process will continue for years to come as we continue to care for the most-used Space Shuttle orbiter.
Like any artifact in the care of the Smithsonian, Discovery is no more the orbiter of my space shuttle than it is yours: it belongs to all of us. I happen to be the lucky soul who serves as his caretaker for a while, making sure these liquid leaks don’t cause any damage and giving some insight into what Discovery is like an artifact. Astronauts can tell what this operational vehicle looked like: it safely transported 183 astronauts: American, Australian, British, Canadian, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss, a Saudi prince, senators, Christians, Muslims, Jews, men, women – to and from space during 39 missions. This time of year is memorable for all of them, in fact. March 9, 2022 is the 11th anniversary of Discoveryof the last landing on Earth (STS-133), and in April the Museum will commemorate the 10th anniversary of Discovery‘s arrival at the Smithsonian. It is such a privilege to be connected to these people and events through a single artifact.
Today, Discovery smells and feels like many other artifacts. There is a dryness in the air inside, except in the hold where a smell of space still lingers. It’s a noticeable smell, something like a mixture of plastic and metal. Mid-deck lockers are empty of their contents, surfaces show signs of dents and nicks from spacework, switches remain static in their last positions, and there is no sound but your heart that beats in your ears because of the incredible feeling of being there. Space is obviously designed for orbit, not 1-G, so climbing up and down ladders, through small passageways, and crawling along the padded ramp to the airlock and cargo bay is clearly for people floating. Bruises on my legs proved this was no easy hike. So when people ask, “what does it look like in there”, my honest answer will always be “absolutely breathtaking”. I know my grandfather and my father would understand why these surfaces, textures and smells mean something more to me, a child from Michigan who saw a magic machine go into space and who is now making sure that generations future can see it with their own eyes.
Jennifer Levasseur, PhD, is a museum curator in the Department of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum.