WASHINGTON, D.C. Anticipating the arrival of the Discovery space shuttle was much like Christmas Eve for Linda Hicks, director of special events at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, who wondered, Would Rudolph come through? Discovery flew its first mission on August 30, 1984, and finished its final mission on March 9, 2011, after the government retired the shuttle program. Hicks planned a slate of public and private events to welcome the shuttle.
Things kicked off Tuesday morning when the Discovery, mounted atop NASA's Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft flew over metropolitan Washington on its way to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport. Awaiting the arrival at were 300 V.I.P guests at a private brunch and viewing party and thousands of public citizens who came with lawn chairs and coolers for their own party. Thursday morning the center hosted another V.I.P breakfast for 225 guests, a ceremony, and a lunch, and a public component for whomever wanted to come. Finally, on May 1 the center will throw a donor dinner starting with cocktails outdoors at the nose of the shuttle, followed by a seated dinner. Lincoln Automotive sponsored Tuesday’s events, and the Boeing Company and Lockheed Martin Corporation sponsored Thursday’s ceremony.
Hicks spoke with BizBash about planning for the shuttle's arrival.
How did the idea for the flyover come about?
It really came from NASA, I think. It’s also been a long tradition. When we received what we have currently—a shuttle that never went into space—NASA gave it to us in 1985. This time it’s a very emotional time for NASA because the shuttles aren’t flying anymore. This is the most historic of the shuttles. They’re bringing it back to the home of NASA, the capital of America. They wanted to fly it all over the city to see this thing that’s never going to be anymore. NASA wanted to do it.
Tell me about some of the logistical preparations that went into planning this event.
It was on a variety of levels. First, NASA had not figured out how to take a shuttle off the back of a big carrier airplane for many, many years. They have special facilities at Kennedy [Space Center in Orlando]. They had to practice for months to prepare for bringing it up. They showed us time-lapse videos. It boggled the mind. It’s a far cry from flower arrangements and floor plans. Then there were the logistics on how to do the flyover because Washington is so terribly secure since 9/11. NASA and the F.A.A. had to meet several times about where they could fly and what they could tell the public. Some of our major concerns, we have a parking lot that holds 6,000 cars. At 6 a.m. [Tuesday] morning, the cars were backed up already to get in. Usually we’re pretty low-key here. Only a couple of days a year do we have a big public event. We had to talk with our contractors about the best way to bring in V.I.P.s, where to park the public, and let everyone have a positive experience. In the meantime, we had to get our vendors and caterers in for our brunch and hope the shuttle would come. That was one of the worst parts: If it was bad weather, the whole thing could have gone puff. Events always are in a controlled space with a controlled guest list and careful planning for the artistic effect you’re going to have. In this case, the enormous shuttle provided all the ‘wow’ you try to dream up, and we had to keep up with the wave and also make the guests we wanted to feel special to feel special.
How many different government agencies were involved in coordinating the arrival?
The Smithsonian, the Department of Transportation—which controls the airports—the F.A.A., and NASA. Then you have all of the local police, the park police—they all had to be aware that this shuttle was going to be flying over. The National Park Service had to be aware. They had to lift all the security. We had United States Air Force escort planes.
Could you look to the previous shuttle in 1985 for any guidance on how to plan the event?
We didn’t even have this facility here. It opened in 2003. When we got the shuttle in 1985, they put it in a warehouse in the back lot of Dulles. We didn’t have anyplace to show it. It was too big to show downtown. So we built this gorgeous facility to house these great big things. In 1985, it flew in and landed and there was a small delegation of local airport people.
What happened to the shuttle between its arrival Tuesday and its debut Thursday? Was it cleaned or prepped in other ways?
This shuttle looks like it’s been to space and back a few times. It’s kind of scorched. It looks like a warrior. It has practically spent a year in space. Our curator really wanted to receive it in that condition.