Space Shuttle Discovery’s 39th and final launch into space on Feb. 24, 2011, ends an extraordinary odyssey that began in November 1983, when she was delivered to the Kennedy Space Center. Discovery has had an extraordinary “life” and accomplished many amazing things in her 28 years of service. She ends her illustrious career delivering the first humanoid robot to ever fly in space to the space station, as well as a final module that will be used as a storeroom. I find it poetic that she will be delivering a historic first and also a final last together. Discovery is the first of the last flights that compose the swan song of NASA’s space shuttle program.
The space shuttle program began as an idea of a reusable spacecraft in the 1950s, which bounced around through the next two decades and evolved. Pieces of the puzzle appeared in various research and experimental designs over time. NASA “officially” began a research and development plan to implement this dream in 1972, with the blessing of then-President Nixon.
The concept of the shuttle was simple in theory, but very complex in engineering execution. The shuttle would launch into orbit like a rocket but return to Earth like a glider. It would arrive home safe and sound, undamaged, and able to fly again.
The first complete vehicle was a test orbiter, designed to validate the theories of the proposed shuttle designs by conducting glide-approach and landing tests. Although she was not a full space shuttle, the test orbiter was the first step toward building the first reusable shuttle in human history, which was the next logical step toward space. This vehicle caught the imagination of the public in general, but most especially “Star Trek” fans. It turns out that Americans felt strongly that this vehicle represented the beginning of dreams coming true, and there was just one name appropriate for this foundation orbiter. People wrote letters in droves. This was an organized campaign, which is more common these days – but it happened before the Internet, and such massive coordination was difficult to achieve. Although they originally named her Constitution, they changed her name to Enterprise in response to the letters.
The first actual shuttle, the Columbia, lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-1 on April 12, 1981. Space fans around the globe heralded the event as the beginning of a new era of human spaceflight. This space shuttle was the first reusable spacecraft, and the first spacecraft that would return to Earth as a glider. It was also significant because it happened exactly 20 years after the first space launch (which happened April 12, 1961). The successful Columbia launch filled everyone in America with wonder and hope and pride. The future looked brighter than the shuttle’s exhaust on that day!
Discovery herself brought the Russians and the Americans together in 1994, when she launched the first Russian cosmonaut shuttle passenger into orbit. This historic moment created a visible signpost in healing the remnants of the Cold War and ushering in a new era of cooperation between former enemies Russia and the United States. The Russian cosmonaut lived and worked with American Astronauts from Feb. 3 to 11, a total of nine days. The Shuttle-Mir program grew directly out of that first cooperative flight.
These great moments are only highlights of a long and successful space program. The shuttle program has done so much for humanity. The shuttle program opened many doors to infinite possibilities. Its closing is tragic.
Dunn, Marcia. “NASA Space Shuttle Discovery Launch: PHOTOS Of The Final Flight.” Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. N.p., 24 Feb. 2011. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.
“NASA – The Long Voyage of Discovery.” NASA – Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.
Powers, Scott, and Orlando Sentinel. “Space shuttle Discovery launch: Space shuttle Discovery launched on its final mission – chicagotribune.com.” Chicago Tribune: Chicago news, sports, weather and traffic – chicagotribune.com. N.p., 24 Feb. 2011. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.
spacevidcast. “YouTube – Discovery’s Last Ride.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. . Nasatelevision, 24 Feb. 2011. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.