updated 3/9/2011 11:17:43 AM ET 2011-03-09T16:17:43

The 27-year flying career of space shuttle Discovery, the most traveled spaceship in history, is due to end today with a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The ship's 39th and final spaceflight has been virtually trouble-free, a far cry from its rocky start in 1984.

"Discovery was not real anxious to get off the pad the first time," recalls Michael Coats, the pilot for Discovery's first mission, designated STS-41D.

A computer failure forced NASA to cancel Discovery's first launch attempt on June 25, 1984. The agency tried again the next day, only to be confronted with a launch abort six seconds before liftoff when one of the shuttle's three hydrogen-burning main engines failed to start.

"It was kind of a stunning. We were in a shocked speechless mode for a few seconds," Coats, who is now the director of the Johnson Space Center, said in an interview on NASA Television. "When the engines fire, the orbiter rocks forward -- 'twang' we call it -- and then when it comes back to the vertical is when the solid rocket motors fire. We started the first two engines and twanged forward -- you can really feel the motion up there in the crew cabin because we're way up there -- and all of a sudden it got quiet and all we could hear is the seagulls screaming. They had this wild noise and they were very loud and then it's just absolutely quiet in the crew cabin.

"For maybe 12 or 15 seconds, which is a long time, nobody said a word. We're sitting there thinking 'I don't think we're going anywhere today,' and finally Steve Hawley (Discovery's flight engineer) uttered the famous comment. He said 'You know, I thought we'd be a lot higher at MECO' (main engine cutoff), which kind of broke the ice. We started cracking jokes and so forth," Coats said.

The same problem that triggered the abort -- a hydrogen valve in one of the main engines was not opening fast enough -- sparked a dangerous fire.

"The fire was coming up the left side of the orbiter where the crew hatch is," Coats said. "It took them a while, probably a good 30 to 40 minutes of dumping water from the deluge system out there to get the fire under control.

"We had a real waterfall coming off of the pad structure … We got in the elevator, finally, and went down to get in the astronaut van, the elevator doors open and here's this wall of water, just solid water, draining off the pad structure. Back then we just wore blue cotton flight suits, so we walked through this wall of water, got completely drenched to the skin to get into the astronaut van, which for some reason was kept out about 32 degrees.

"So, here we are together, shivering, driving away from the launch pad, and I remember Judy Resnik saying 'Well, this isn't what I expected spaceflight to be all about,'" Coats said. (Resnik would later be killed in the Challenger disaster in 1986).

NASA released crew from quarantine, as it was evident they wouldn't be flying again anytime soon.

"We all took our families over to Disney World," Coats said. "It wasn't quite how we thought the day was going to end."

Coats and the first Discovery crew finally launched on Aug. 30, 1984.  Coats went on to fly two more missions on Discovery, NASA's oldest surviving shuttle following the loss of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2001.

Discovery was assigned both of NASA's return-to-flight missions after the accidents, becoming the de facto fleet leader. Now, it's leading the fleet into retirement.

"It's bittersweet to see the last flight of the orbiter," Coats said. "You're sad to see an orbiter on its last mission about to go to an museum … but it also makes you feel proud of the team and what they've accomplished in the last 30 years."

"It's just amazing what this vehicle can do," added Eric Boe, the pilot for Discovery's 39th and final flight.  "It can launch like a rocket, go into orbit, change it into a spacecraft and then land as a hypersonic airplane. What's amazing is just how well she sails. It's an honor and privilege for all of us to get the chance to fly on her final voyage."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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