Since that maiden voyage, Discovery has logged the most flight hours of any shuttle in NASA's fleet: The craft has flown 38 missions into space and spent 351 days in orbit so far. If all goes as planned, the shuttle's launch this month will be Discovery's final mission. (Find out how to vote for the wake-up songs to be played during Discovery's final flight.)
Over the years Discovery has earned a reputation among historians and shuttle enthusiasts as the "dependable older sibling" of the space shuttle fleet.
"Its legacy is that it is the reliable workhorse," said Robert Pearlman, editor of the space history and artifacts website collectSPACE.com. "Whenever it's been called into service, it's performed."
In addition to delivering Hubble into space, Discovery was called on to conduct servicing missions to the observatory in 1997 and 1999.
Photograph by SSPL, Getty Images
Discovery's Path to Glory
Seated on a mobile platform, Discovery rolls toward the launch pad on January 17, 1997. The shuttle lifted off on February 11 to perform the second servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
As part of its mission, Discovery had to grasp the space telescope with a robotic arm and use the shuttle's maneuvering jets to nudge the instrument into a higher orbit. At Discovery's peak, the shuttle was flying 384 miles (618 kilometers) above Earth—the highest altitude yet achieved by a space shuttle, according to NASA.
Photograph courtesy NASA
Discovery Hosts Most Senior Astronaut
NASA ground crew members help John H. Glenn, Jr.—then a U.S. Senator from Ohio—check his flight suit before he climbs into the space shuttle Discovery in October 1998.
In 1962 Glenn became the first U.S. citizen to orbit Earth, piloting the Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft. Thirty-six years later, at 77, he set another record as the oldest person to fly in space. During the mission he served as a payload specialist to conduct medical research aboard Discovery.
Eileen M. Collins sits at a mock pilot station in 1993 during training at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. As pilot for Discovery's February 1995 mission to the Russian space station Mir, Collins became the first woman to take the helm of a space shuttle.
Discovery was the first U.S. shuttle to approach and fly around Mir, setting the stage for the space shuttle Atlantis to conduct the first U.S. mission to dock with the Russian station in June 1995.
Photograph courtesy NASA
Eileen Collins (lower right) went on to serve as mission commander for Discovery during the 2005 "return to flight" (pictured) after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. NASA had spent two and a half years after the disaster researching and implementing safety improvements for the orbiters and their external fuel tanks.
This Discovery mission to the International Space Station (ISS), which lasted from July to August of 2005, allowed the shuttle team to scrutinize every detail of launch and landing and test new safety protocols.
For instance, Collins performed the first in-orbit rollover, a maneuver that allows the crew aboard the ISS to examine the heat-resistant tiles on the underside of a shuttle. (See a picture of Discovery's underside as seen from the ISS earlier this year.)
Photograph courtesy NASA
Discovery's Trail of Fire
The trail of NASA's space shuttle Discovery creates a bright arc in the sky over Florida following a successful night launch on August 28, 2009.
The mission marked the 30th space shuttle trip dedicated to the assembly and maintenance of the International Space Station (ISS). Discovery delivered equipment and supplies to the six crew members aboard the ISS, including racks of science equipment, a new research freezer, and a new air-revitalization system.
Photograph courtesy NASA/Ben Cooper
Perhaps one of the most famous pieces of equipment Discovery has delivered to the International Space Station is the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT, seen above on September 1, 2009.
The treadmill was named for comedian Stephen Colbert following a minor tussle over the naming of a crew compartment due to be installed on the station. Despite "Colbert" coming out on top in an online voting contest, NASA dubbed the compartment Tranquility. The exercise equipment was given its humorous moniker and logo as a compromise.
Photograph by NASA/AP
When Discovery embarks on its last mission—slated for this month—the space shuttle will rack up a final first that could be a preview of things to come in space exploration.
In addition to carrying a storage module for the International Space Station, Discovery will deliver the first humanoid robot in space, called Robonaut2, seen above during testing at Johnson Space Center in June.
"It looks like a human and is the first robot designed to assist astronauts, both inside and eventually outside the space station," collectSPACE.com's Pearlman said.
Photograph courtesy Kris Kehe
Discovery Awaits Final Launch
September twilight settles around the space shuttle Discovery as it awaits liftoff on Launch Pad 39A—most likely for the last time.
Watching Discovery's final mission will be especially poignant for collectSPACE.com's Pearlman, who counts the craft as his favorite shuttle.
"It's always had a special place in my thoughts," he said. "When I watch it land for the last time, it will be emotional. It's watching a machine, but it's a machine that's taken on a personality over the years."