It’s been a great career for the space shuttle Discovery. But her last voyage begins tomorrow.
The space shuttle program has been an overwhelming success. Starting with the launch of Columbia in April of 1981, the program has lasted for thirty years. Only two missions remain in what has been a spectacular journey of discovery and education.
The fleet of space shuttles, Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavor, has carried people, equipment, satellites, and the largest man-made satellite, the International Space Station, into the near reaches of space. And no other ship in the fleet has flown more missions than Discovery.
Discovery was the first shuttle to fly after the terrible Challenger accident of 1986. A failed O-ring on a rocket booster engine caused the shuttle to explode during lift-off, killing the crew, and prompting a redesign and a reevaluation of the whole shuttle system. It was Discovery that first took to space with the results of the safety reengineering.
In all, Discovery flew 38 missions and logged nearly 143 million miles. She’s orbited Earth 5,628 times and carried more people into space, including the oldest (John Glenn at age 77), and the first cosmonaut to fly aboard an American spacecraft.
Just one mission remains for Discovery – STS 133. On this 11 day voyage she’ll venture out to and dock at the International Space Station. Her crew will install the last US-built module to be added to the research station. She will also deliver and install Robonaut 2, the first humanoid robot to travel in space. Oddly enough, Discovery’s flight is the next to last in the 30 year shuttle program. The ISS itself is entering the 10th year that humans have been continuously living on the space station.
On March 7, 2011 Discovery will head back home to Florida for a final wheels-down. Her rest, following this last mission, will be well deserved. She won’t be resting for long, however. She’s slated to serve as a museum display – a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of the people who made the space shuttle program a reality.