Discovery’s final space flight

Issue: 04-2011By Air Marshal (Retd) V.K. Bhatia

The US Space Shuttle ‘Discovery’ landed back on Wednesday, March 9 after its final space flight. The shuttle cruised onto the runway at Kennedy Space Center at 1657 GMT, wrapping up a rich, 27-year career in space flight that has spanned more distance and endured longer than any of the remaining three US shuttles. “This legend has spent 365 days in space,” NASA mission control in Houston said. Discovery’s last trip to the International Space Station was initially scheduled to last 11 days but was extended to 13 days so that astronauts could work on repairs and install a spare room to accommodate more supplies and provide more work space for the living-in crews.

It was a histo ric end to the Discovery’s space missions—undoubtedly the most reliable of the US space shuttles—which by its last mission had flown 148 million miles (238 million km) in 39 space outings, completed 5,830 orbits, and spent a full year (365 days) in orbit over 27 years of operational life. Designated as OV-103, Space Shuttle Discovery first flew into space on August 30, 1984 becoming the third operational orbiter of NASA’s space shuttle programme. STS-133 was Discovery’s last and 39th mission making it the most travelled spaceship in the world. It was the third flight aboard Discovery for Commander Steve Lindsey who said he was amazed by the craft’s great condition. “And if you think about a vehicle that is 26-27 years old, been able to fly for that long and with perfection. I have never seen an airplane able to do that.”

There was indeed something special about the Discovery. During its illustrious operational career, it achieved many glorious milestones. For example, Discovery was the shuttle that launched the ‘Hubble Space Telescope’. The second and third Hubble service missions were also carried out by Discovery. It was also the vehicle that launched the Ulysses probe and three TDRS satellites. So great was the faith placed on it by the space shuttle programme managers that it was chosen twice as the return to flight orbiter, first in 1988, after the 1986 Challenger disaster, and then for the twin return to flight missions in July 2005 and July 2006 after the 2003 Columbia disaster. Discovery also carried Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn back into the space during STS-95 on October 29, 1998, making him the oldest person to go into space at 77 years of age.

The wheels may have stopped for the final time for the space shuttle. Discovery after a smooth touchdown on its last landing, but impressed with the spacecraft’s overall condition, even senior NASA magnates concede that the ship could fly again and again. But that is not to be so, as under a US Presidential decree, Discovery’s arrival back on Earth marks the beginning of the end for the three-decade-old US ‘Shuttle’ programme which will formally end after the remaining two shuttles ‘Endeavour’ and ‘Atlantis’ take their final spaceflights in the coming months. But is the Shuttle programme coming to an end too soon?