Thousands of sightseers will flock to Cape Canaveral this month, eager for the lightning-bright, thunderously loud final launch of the space shuttle Discovery.
But to technicians and managers who work on Discovery, and to astronauts who have flown it, the spacecraft's last launch is more than a milestone in history.
"A lot of times, you almost think of it as a family member," said NASA manager Stephanie Stilson, whose job is to prepare Discovery for flight.
For her and everyone else who works on Discovery — which will be the first space shuttle officially retired — the coming countdown is deeply personal.
If Discovery launches as scheduled Feb. 24, "I will definitely make sure that I have tissues with me," Stilson said.
Discovery has flown 38 times, orbited Earth more than 5,000 times and spent nearly a year in space. For the space shuttle program as a whole, this is the third-to-the-last scheduled flight.
After its final flight, Discovery, which some call "the mother of the fleet," will begin a new life as a museum piece.
To much of America, the shuttle is an afterthought, a ho-hum space truck.
But not to people like Stilson and thousands of others who fly and fix the nation's three reusable spaceships. For them, this is a time of pride as well as sadness, especially for those who have spent years working on Discovery.
"It's like one of your favorite relatives that has cancer and you know you're going to lose them and you just don't know when," said Lorie Stansberry, Discovery's lead vehicle planner.
Discovery has not gone gently. It was scheduled to launch on numerous dates in November, December and February. Gas leaks, weather and external tank issues caused the delays.
"She's got the tenacity, she doesn't want to leave," Stansberry said. "She knows she's being put out to pasture, I think."
Michael L. Coats was the pilot on Discovery's first flight in 1984 and recently recalled that the astronauts climbed into the cockpit on four separate days that year before actually launching.
"I think it was reluctant to go into space the first time, and now it's reluctant to go to a museum," joked Coats, who now is the Johnson Space Center director.
• • •
Discovery first launched in 1984. It was the third orbiter to fly in space, but the first two — Columbia and Challenger — were destroyed in later accidents. That makes Discovery the oldest of the remaining shuttles.
Astronauts interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times say technically speaking, there is little difference between Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour.
In fact, Coats said he was somewhat pleased when he climbed into the pilot seat of Discovery before its first mission in 1984 and noticed "a tiny little scratch in the heads-up display on the pilot side."
He thought to himself, "At least it's not quite perfect." It was a little something that made Discovery different. So he was pleased again when he got back into Discovery for his second flight in 1989, to see the scratch was still there. But the scratch was gone when he climbed in for his third and final mission in 1991.
"It kind of made me a little bit sad — now it's just like all the other ones," Coats recalled.
Over the years, in spite of difficult launch episodes like the current one, Discovery got a reputation as the "old reliable" of the fleet.
"Discovery has always been the workhorse that you could count on, that leaked (fuel) the least, that was just the sweetheart," said Bruce Melnick, a Clearwater High School graduate who flew aboard Discovery in 1990.
It also has a history of important missions.
"It was the vehicle from which the Hubble Space Telescope was flown," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut who flew Discovery twice. "It was the vehicle for which America and Russia came together for the first joint shuttle mission, it was the first vehicle to have a woman fly as a pilot. … There are a number of firsts for Discovery."
It also was the first shuttle to fly after both the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. Two astronauts from the Tampa Bay area, Melnick and Nicole Passonno Stott, have flown aboard it, and Stott is a member of the crew now preparing to launch.
Those who have flown on Discovery carry plenty of memories. Melnick said that in his first flight, his job was to float up to one of Discovery's windows right after getting into space and take pictures of the external tank.
But when he floated up, he found himself mesmerized by the vivid view of Earth. "After all that training, I was so in awe of what Earth looked like, I forgot my first job." It took a minute before he remembered to snap pictures.
Bolden recalled when the Hubble Space Telescope was first released from Discovery. He could see "this huge spacecraft, this huge observatory separate from the orbiter and then drift across the continent of South America. … I can see it even as I talk to you."
Eileen Collins, the first female shuttle pilot, commanded Discovery in 2005 when it made the first launch after the Columbia accident, at a time when NASA's safety culture had come under harsh criticism. She said everyone vowed to put safety first, because it represented "something even bigger than each one of us. It was our country's future in space."
Collins, like most astronauts interviewed for this story, believes that in spite of the Columbia and Challenger accidents, there is more life in Discovery, and it could continue flying safely for years.
NASA is working on a new rocket dubbed the "heavy lifter" and a capsule designed to take astronauts deeper into the solar system, possibly to an asteroid or one day to Mars, Bolden said.
Soon NASA will decide where to send Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour so they can be put on display upon retirement. Kennedy Space Center has asked for one of the shuttles, but it is among 29 institutions seeking one. NASA says it is in discussion with the Smithsonian Institution about whether Discovery might end up there.
As they busy themselves with all the tasks for the last launch, many of the people who work on Discovery are reflecting on how lucky they feel to have had the opportunity.
Stansberry, the lead vehicle planner for Discovery who works for NASA contractor United Space Alliance, has a special routine if she's feeling a bit glum at work. She sometimes puts on a protective suit and climbs into Discovery's crew module, as though she is an astronaut about to fly into space.
"Not everyone can say, hey, I can put on a bunny suit and go sit in the pilot seat of the shuttle to get a good attitude adjustment," she said.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or [email protected]