Putting Discovery Back Together

This is going to sound kind of silly, but something that’s really been troubling me about the three surviving spaceflown shuttles being taxidermied for museum display is the thought of their mighty main engines ripped out and replaced by wood or fiberglass replicas. It’s not rational, I know. The shuttles are just big butterflies pinned to a board at this point, dead things that will never soar again, so what does it matter if their guts are missing? I don’t have a good answer for that question, to be honest. It just feels wrong to me. When I go see them in future years — and I do intend to make pilgrimages to each of them once they’ve arrived in their new, earthbound homes — I want to know that what I’m seeing is whole, that these are the actual machines that stoked the dreams of a generation of nerds like myself. Not mock-ups, not empty shells… that they could, in theory at least, be revived someday and sent up again. It’s a matter of authenticity, I guess. It’s the difference between seeing the well-intentioned King Tut’s tomb exhibit that used to be at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, and visiting the real thing in Egypt. The Vegas version looked pretty realistic, and certainly gave you a better idea of what the discovery of the tomb must’ve been like than a description in a book, but when you came right down to it, the walls were just painted stucco over sheet-rock, and somehow you could sense that. I think phony fiberglass engines stuck on the back of the orbiters would evoke a similar feeling… that somehow you were being cheated.

It turns out, however, I’ve been wrong in my assumption that these replicas would be complete fakes. According to the article from which I grabbed the fascinating image above, what’s going back into the engine sockets on Discovery, and eventually Endeavour and Atlantis as well, are real rocket nozzles that flew in space as part of earlier-generation engine packages. They’re not complete engines — compare what you can see in that image above to the one I posted a while back, and you’ll immediately notice that the big knob of plumbing that normally sits above the nozzle is missing — but at least they’re authentic space hardware. They’ve been up there. They’ve earned the right to be attached to my beloved orbiters.

I highly recommend you follow that link. There’s a whole mess of photos over there showing this nozzle and its re-installation into Discovery. The glimpses of men crawling around inside her aft end make me happy. They remind me of backyard mechanics like my dad wriggling underneath a lovingly restored hot rod…