The once-and-future spirit of Discovery

I felt like a kid again. On the morning of April 17, I stood amid a crowd of fellow staffers on the rooftop terrace of the National Museum of American History, waiting expectantly for the flyover of space shuttle Discovery. This shuttle, which flew the final shuttle mission, was taking its victory laps over Washington before retiring to the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport. Just before 10 a.m., Discovery came out of the western sky, strapped to its 747 mother ship and escorted by a single jet fighter that looked puny by comparison. My mind flashed back to a day in April 1981 when I was visiting the Science Museum in London. The whole museum came to a halt to watch a video feed of the landing of Columbia, the first of the shuttles. At once exultant and sad, I knew Discovery's final flight sealed the end of the shuttle program that had for a time thrilled the world.

Space shuttle Discovery, mounted atop a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), flies over the Washington skyline as seen from a NASA T-38 aircraft, Tuesday, April 17, 2012. Photo by Robert Markowitz, courtesy of NASA.

As Discovery passed by the Washington Monument, I could hardly imagine anything more, well, patriotic. For 45 minutes it banked majestically over the city. The crowd, gazing skyward through sunglasses, binoculars, and camera lenses, completed the picture in a familiar scene—almost a cliché—from every space launch with humans onboard. But this flight was different. Discovery was not going into orbit but to its final, appropriate resting place in “Museumland.” After three decades, the space shuttles are now history, relics of 1970s technology. Yet, for their day, the shuttles were an amazing feat of engineering. When other American and Soviet orbiters simply parachuted to earth or ocean after completing their missions, the shuttles flew, glided, landed, and went back into space again. Discovery completed a record thirty-nine missions.

Eerily, just as Discovery appeared on the horizon, I heard the words of Joseph Henry (1797-1878), the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, echoing from the museum’s Mall entrance. It seemed almost on cue, but it was just a fantastic coincidence. Actually, it was the amplified voice of costumed actor Dwane Starlin, who at 10 o’clock every morning greets visitors at the museum, speaking in Henry’s own words about his vision of the early Smithsonian (and giving a preview of the exhibitions inside the museum). One of Starlin’s special talents is that he never drops out of character. You can’t trick him; I know because I’ve tried. That morning—I couldn’t quite hear—I’m sure he remarked on the sight of the space shuttle, which in fact flew over the Smithsonian Castle, where Henry lived and presided. I’m equally confident that he never let on to knowing anything about the mysterious machines overhead.

Dwane Starlin in character as Secretary Joseph Henry. Smithsonian photo.

The unexpected coincidence of Henry’s words with Discovery’s flyover led me to ponder what the real Henry would have thought about the advances in aeronautical engineering 150 years into the future. Could he have ever envisioned something like Discovery being brought into the Smithsonian collections?

Portrait of Joseph Henry (1797-1878), physicist and first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (1846-1878). Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives


Thaddeus Lowe’s balloon experiment, with crowd watching, c. 1863. Unidentified photographer, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 54, Folder 09E, negative #SIA2011-0961.


The most famous American physicist of the 19th century and a pioneer in electrical invention, Henry was versed in the latest advances in American science and technology. Though he died a quarter-century before the historic flight of the Wright brothers, he had some involvement with human flight through ballooning. During the Civil War, Henry gave his endorsement to Thaddeus Lowe, a New Hampshire inventor and meteorologist, who offered his services to the Union cause. Lowe said he could use his balloons for aerial reconnaissance of enemy positions, and showed that it was possible to communicate from balloon to ground by telegraph, an invention that owed much to Henry’s experiments three decades earlier. The Smithsonian Secretary supported Lowe to become head of the Balloon Corps, but first insisted on a careful review of his claims and proposals to ensure that they were consistent with meteorological and other physical laws. Henry advised Lowe that only powered, heavier-than-air vehicles, which did not yet exist, could attempt to fly against the direction of air currents; lighter-than-air balloons would always be subject to the winds.

Henry regarded himself a scientist, but he was fascinated by technology and was always willing to give advice to serious inventors. Most prized of all by Henry were technologies of discovery—those at the cutting edge of scientific knowledge. If guided by science, Henry saw no limits to what technology could do. This spirit of discovery was what he instilled into the Smithsonian. So, would he have been shocked by an aircraft called Discovery? On reflection, I don’t think so.

For more on one of Discovery's most beloved crew members, see Margaret Weitekamp’s blog post about the donation of Buzz Lightyear to the collections of the National Air and Space Museum by Toy Story creator, John Lasseter. And in the “Did you know?” department, one of Thaddeus Lowe’s balloons was named Enterprise, just like the shuttle at the Udvar-Hazy Center that Discovery is replacing!

Art Molella is director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History. This column originally appeared in Prototype, the Lemelson Center’s newsletter.