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Space Shuttle Discovery

Coming Soon: Discovery 3D!

By Dr. Valerie Neal, Chair of the Space History Department, National Air & Space Museum on Wed, 04/01/2015 - 13:15

Every week or two we see news of another museum digitizing its collection and making it accessible online. The Smithsonian is no exception, and efforts are under way across our campus to scan artifacts, works of art, documents, and films and put them on our websites. These projects take months if not years to complete, but it is our high priority to open the museums to visitors beyond our walls, and digitization is a key part of our strategy.

The National Air and Space Museum, working closely with the Smithsonian’s central Digitization Program Office, already has made a pioneering step in this direction by scanning the iconic 1903 Wright Flyer in 3D and creating a number of “tours” that enable online visitors to examine the aircraft as a whole and take detailed looks at many of its features. We have just scanned Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and are preparing the auxiliary content for online access.

Adam Metallo (left) and Vincent Rossi of the Smithsonian X 3D scan the Spirit of St. Louis at the Museum in Washington, DC.

Our ambition is to work our way methodically through the Museum’s amazing collection and create high resolution 3D digital models of as many objects as possible, and then make them readily viewable online.

This week we are taking an even bigger step—attempting to scan one of the largest objects on display in the Smithsonian, the Space Shuttle orbiter Discovery, in very high-resolution 3D digitization. At 37 meters (122 feet) long with a 24-meter (78-foot) wingspan and a vertical stabilizer rising almost 18 meters (60 feet) high, this is by far the largest artifact the Smithsonian has yet attempted to scan, and it is our first spacecraft to be scanned.

With its complex geometry and varied surface materials, Discovery may pose certain challenges to achieve the desired fidelity in both the laser scan of its “architecture” and the exactly matching photo documentation of its “skin.” We aim to blend both structural and surface accuracy for life-like realism. If all results as we envision, viewing Discovery online—or maybe 3D-printing it?—will yield an orbiter that exactly duplicates what you see in the Museum, although at smaller scale.

Our first step is to conduct a test by scanning a variety of typical and atypical areas of the spacecraft to learn what physical issues they may present for accurate scanning and data processing. We will spend a day or two sampling the exterior and interior, then evaluating the results and refining the techniques, before embarking on the full scan in a few months. Until we do the trial this week, we will not have a good sense of how long the actual scanning will take, probably at least a full week, maybe two. Nor will we know whether we can achieve the desired resolution to show such details as the serial numbers on the tiles and all the fascinating evidence of spaceflight on the tiles and thermal blankets.

We are excited to launch this Discovery 3D project with the generous support of one of the Museum’s Board members, Meredith Siegfried Madden, and her husband Peter Madden. In the meantime, we are posting this preview announcement, and we will post news and images as the project progresses. We believe there are many visitors eager to see a 3D Discovery, coming soon to the Smithsonian X 3D.

Dr. Valerie Neal is space shuttle curator and chair of the Space History Department.

(Reposted with permission from our friends at the National Air and Space Museum’s blog