Space Shuttle in Extreme Detail: Exclusive New Pictures

Space Shuttle in Extreme Detail: Exclusive New Pictures

Explore Discovery’s flight deck with a new 360 panorama.

for National Geographic News

This week NASA’s space shuttle Discovery will fly low over Washington, D.C., atop a jumbo jet and roll into its new permanent home with the Smithsonian Institution.

Discovery will touch down at Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, weather permitting, and the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, will host a big outdoor ceremony on Thursday to welcome their new space-worn acquisition.

But once the spaceship is settled into the museum, visitors won’t be able to hop into the commander’s seat and fiddle with switches—the institution intends to seal up Discovery indefinitely. (See “Space Shuttle Discovery: Final Flight in Pictures.”)

To provide an unprecedented look at Discovery and the other retired space shuttles, both inside and out, photographers with National Geographic recently captured more than two dozen ultrahigh-resolution, 360-degree pictures of each orbiter. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)

NASA and United Space Alliance, the agency’s prime contractor for servicing the shuttles, made the interactive panoramas possible by granting news organizations unprecedented access to the hundred-ton spaceships after each final shuttle flight.

“When the shuttles were flying, workers had to maintain the integrity and cleanliness of the vehicles. We had to keep them safe for spaceflight” and so couldn’t allow much outside access, said Lisa Fowler, a NASA spokesperson at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Now that they’re being readied for display, we’ve been able to grant more access into them.”

The flight deck of Discovery, for instance, is shown above in a 2.74-gigapixel, zoomable image—equivalent in resolution to about 340 pictures taken with an 8-megapixel iPhone camera.

“It’s awesome, although it doesn’t look like the flight deck I flew on Discovery. That one still had old-fashioned style instrumentation,” said Scott “Doc” Horowitz, a former NASA astronaut who was both a commander and pilot of Discovery.

“Pictures like this give you insight into just how complex it is to operate a vehicle that travels in space and pull off a manned space program,” he said.

Discovering the Shuttle’s “Bob” Switch

National Geographic was one of more than a hundred news outlets recently allowed inside the space shuttles, not to mention archivists with NASA and the Smithsonian, which plans to install panorama kiosks of Discovery’s interior and payload bay sometime this May.

When they were granted access, Susan Poulton, a vice president of digital media at the National Geographic Society, and Jon Brack, a freelance photojournalist, originally planned to make only a couple wrap-around images of Discovery using GigaPan. The technology, developed for NASA’s Mars rovers, uses a camera-ready robot and image-stitching software to create zoomable, 360-degree panoramas.

Poulton and Brack eventually logged 30 hours inside and around Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis, creating 27 gigapans of the space shuttles. The pair captured everything from the flight decks, mid-decks, and air locks to the underbellies, payload bays—and even the toilets.

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