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June 2, 2014 AT 12:00 am

Discovery’s Teardrop: a story about an observation and what it meant to one person #space

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Jim Cook wrote this touching piece on the space shuttle Discovery and how a question he had pondered for years finally came to be answered.

They are perhaps the most easily recognizable tiles in space shuttle history. For shuttle watchers, when you see them, you know exactly which shuttle you are looking at. Only space shuttles Columbia and Enterprise are more recognizable. The four other shuttles — Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — aside from their names being painted on them, appear in photos, on TV, film, and videos to be essentially the same. That is — except for those black tiles right below the corner pilot-side window on Discovery.

I noticed them immediately while watching the evening news back in October, 1983, when Discovery was rolled out for the first time at the Rockwell hanger in Palmdale, California, where she and all the shuttles underwent final assembly. I squinted and thought, “she has a tear in her eye.” I’ve thought of those black tiles below the pilot’s window as Discovery’s “teardrop” ever since. Had they been located someplace else, perhaps I might have thought of them as a beauty mark. But, as a teardrop, it quickly became one of the reasons Discovery so endeared herself to me all these years. After all, any shuttle with a tear in her eye has to be pretty special. She has feelings.

People have historically given ships and planes (and often their cars) human attributes. They give them names. They christen them. They talk to them. They are typically thought of as female. I thought of Discovery’s teardrop that way, too. Was she afraid of launching? After all, her very first attempt was rather scary — the first ever shutdown on the pad after main engine start. I could see how an infant shuttle might get a bit teary-eyed thinking about her first step. Or, later on, was it there for her lost sisters, Challenger, and then Columbia? She was always the one chosen to bravely lead the way after their loss. Or maybe it’s just a tear of joy for the thrill of going into orbit, like when she did the first ever backflip in space?

Still, I’ve always wondered why those tiles below window No. 5 (if I’m correct) were there at all? On every other orbiter, those tiles are white. Discovery’s alone are black. Whenever I happened to meet someone in the NASA shuttle program or an astronaut who had flown aboard Discovery, I would ask about them, but no one ever knew. That is, until Discovery was finally retired; with so many of Discovery’s astronauts and all the NASA shuttle program people there at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia to commemorate Discovery’s arrival, I knew this had to be my last, best chance to find out. And there, finally, I found the right person to ask. “You know, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked that question.” “Now you have me curious. I’ll try to find out.”

Go here to see the answer and read more.

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