Discovery launch sends storied space shuttle on final mission

By the time space shuttle Discovery completes its final mission, it will have flown farther and higher than any other ship in the fleet. Image: CC Nasa Images

The space shuttle Discovery launch on Feb. 24 is the third-to-last flight in the 30-year space shuttle program. On board Discovery for its 39th and final mission is a robot known as R2, or Robonaut 2. Discovery is the oldest space shuttle and at the end of this mission will have flown more than 143 million miles, more than any other shuttle in the fleet.

Discovery’s final mission

The space shuttle Discovery launch sends it on an 11-day mission to the International Space Station. Discovery’s final mission was originally scheduled for Nov. 1, 2010, but it was delayed repeatedly by cracks in the structural frame of the shuttle’s external tank. Once Discovery is finally in orbit, it will install a compartment for experiments and storage on the International Space Station. The star of the mission will be R2, a $2 million humanoid “robonaut” that human astronauts have brought along to demonstrate how useful robots can be in space.

Discovery’s storied career

The first space shuttle Discovery launch took place on Aug. 30, 1984. After the Challenger disaster in 1988 and the Columbia disaster in 2003 sidetracked NASA’s space shuttle program, Discovery was the first ship to return to space. In 38 flights, NASA engineers said Discovery had fewer in-flight problems than any other ship in the history of the program. By the time Discovery ends its final mission it will have made 5,628 Earth orbits, spent 363 days in space and carried 246 astronauts, more than any other shuttle.

The space shuttle’s swan song

NASA space shuttles were certified to fly 100 missions. Every shuttle in the fleet will have flown considerably fewer missions than certified when the program reaches its end. The final mission of Discovery will be followed by Endeavour’s swan song in April and, if all goes according to plan, Atlantis will officially end the space shuttle program in June. After Atlantis lifts off, the U.S. will have no government-owned spacecraft prepared to launch for the first time in 60 years. Discovery and its sister ships are destined to go on display in museums.


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