Spaceflight Insider

Our SpaceFlight Heritage: The Return

Space shuttle Discovery launches from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A on mission STS-114. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

STS-114 would test out numerous new techniques required after the Columbia accident in 2003. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — It was a turning point in NASA’s history. After the dark days following the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-107), the world saw the space agency take its first steps toward returning to the business of human space flight. The mission would go down as one of the more dramatic flights in shuttle history – it would be a mission marked by its triumphs, setbacks and as an event that helped to redefine what one of NASA’s shuttle orbiters were capable of doing.

For this flight, NASA tapped one of the most accomplished orbiters that remained in its fleet – Discovery. Its crew would be a mix of both experienced and rookie astronauts who hailed from different nations and who were led by an experienced commander.

Space_Shuttle_Discovery_(STS-114_'Return_to_Flight')_approaches_the_International_Space_Station NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Discovery as seen by members of the Expedition 11 crew on board the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

Eileen Collins, the first woman tapped to lead a shuttle mission, was selected as the flight’s commander. The pilot, James “Vegas” Kelly, was joined by mission specialists Soichi Noguchi (from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and NASA’s Steven Robinson, Andrew Thomas, Wendy Lawrence, and Charles Camarda.

This was not the first crew that had been selected for the mission, however. While Collins, Kelly, Noguchi, and Robinson were a part of that original assignment, the other members of the crew would have included NASA’s Ed Lu along with Russia’s Yuri Malenchenko and Aleksandr Kaleri rounding out the “uphill” bound crew (NASA’s Ken Bowersox and Donald Petit along with Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin would have ridden Atlantis, the shuttle originally slated to fly that mission back home after completing their stay on the ISS).

Discovery lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 10:39 a.m. EDT (14:39 GMT) on July 26, 2005. At first glance, the launch looked flawless. Florida’s Space Coast region had been inundated with media and visitors who all wanted to watch the historic mission get underway. The public’s interest was a welcome return in interest in human space flight by the average citizen. It would not be the triumphant return that the space agency had likely envisioned, as an old foe would rear its head during the flight.

International Space Station ISS STS-114 space shuttle Discovery Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

STS-114 saw the first time that one of NASA’s orbiters carried out a Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver – exposing its belly for examination. Photo Credit: NASA

The video that had been transmitted back from cameras placed on the shuttle’s External Tank showed foam, the same type that brought down Columbia, approximately two years earlier, coming off of the tank. It meant that STS-114 would not be the triumphant “Return to Flight” that the United States had anticipated. More research and corrective techniques would be required.

Upon reaching orbit, the crew deployed Discovery’s new Orbiter Boom Sensor System or “OBSS” which utilized some 50 instruments attached to a 50-foot (15 m) extension affixed to the orbiter’s Robotic Manipulator System. They used the new device’s visual imaging equipment and a Laser Dynamic Range Imager (LDRI) to carefully scan Discovery’s Thermal Protection System (TPS) for any evidence that it had been damaged during ascent.

This slow and methodical procedure was just one of an array of new methods that the loss of Columbia and her seven-person crew would require. Upon reaching the space station, Collins, guided by Kelly and the rest of the crew, steered the roughly 21-year-old orbiter (at that time) through a “backflip” known as the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver (or within NASA terminology the “R-bar Pitch Maneuver”). Through this, Discovery’s underside was exposed to the crew on board the station who then carefully examined and photographed the orbiter’s tiles for any issues. On several prior space shuttle missions, it was discovered after one of the spacecraft had landed that tiles had come off and in some cases, such as the case with STS-27, when some 700 tiles had been damaged during an impact event that Shuttle Atlantis encountered during ascent.

Space Shuttle Discovery Steve Robinson STS-114 International Space Station ISS NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insdier

Astronaut Steve Robinson works to remove loose gap fillers on Space Shuttle Discovery’s underside. Photo Credit: NASA

On this first flight, such an issue presented itself – and NASA rose to the challenge.

On August 1, 2005, NASA announced that it had found what were known as “gap fillers” were poking out from between heat tiles on Discovery’s belly near the flight deck. It was decided to have Robinson conduct an unplanned extra-vehicular activity (EVA) to remove the offending ceramic-coated fabric pieces from their location.

Before STS-114, it was unheard of to have a spacewalker travel under a spacecraft and conduct maintenance while on orbit. However, that is exactly what Robinson did two days later on August 3, 2005. Robinson encountered little difficulty removing the two thin strips. He had been maneuvered into position via Discovery’s Canadarm.

In terms of the Shuttle Program, the foam issues on STS-114 saw a delay in regular flights to the ISS. Discovery would fly the next mission, STS-121 as well. The shuttles would continue to roar to orbit for another five years after STS-121 was launched on July 4, 2006.

A year prior to the flight of STS-114, the then-President George W. Bush announced the “Vision for Space Exploration” – under this directive NASA would return to the business of exploring deep space utilizing new launch vehicles and spacecraft. The plan to have the space agency carry out a systematic approach to space exploration – “one mission at a time” – was not to be. Shortly after being elected, President Barack Obama began working to cancel this program.

The age of the shuttle orbiters came to a close when Space Shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility in the summer of 2011. Since that time, owing in part to the changes made to NASA’s directive, the Space Agency has lacked the ability to send astronauts to the ISS on its own. NASA hopes commercial companies will return this capability to the U.S. – possibly as soon as 2017.

NASA space shuttle Discovery launches from Kennedy Space Center's LC-39A on mission STS-114 on July 26, 2005. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie SpaceFlight Insider

Discovery lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A on July 26, 2015. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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