More Than 40 Years Of DISCOVERY Coming To An End
By: Foster Scott (Contributing Editor)
Where only a few may have gone before, “Discovery” is the one Shuttle NASA has championed the most to get them there. On Thursday, Feb. 24 2011 Orbiter Vehicle-103 or OV-103 launched for the last time, taking with it many of the hopes and dreams of many a man, woman, and child with it. Atlantis and Endeavour will also take their last bows this year, but Discovery has the spirits of Columbia and Challenger lifting it’s wings just a little higher. More on that later. 2011 will see the end of the aging Shuttle Fleet that has captured the imagination of the world since the first orbital mission Columbia flew in 1981. Discovery stands out by not only orbiting the world we call home, but having been instramental in many a historical firsts. Compared to what we have today and take for granted like cell phones and seeing WATSON become a Jeopardy champion, what is really amazing is when you know the design of the Shuttle was conceptualized decades before yet can still grab you by the soul and bring the stars so much closer to home. Amazing that the concept of a spacecraft returning from space to a horizontal landing began within NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) back in 1954 with tests of an experimental plane later named the X-15. I am sad to see the end of what has come to be a symbol of anyone who has dreamed of exploring beyond our own planet and excited to see what is next to come.
From Sci-Fi movies to anyone just standing in a dark place and staring up at the stars above, the thought of flying up amoung the stars has been a dream of many throughout human history. Shuttles have helped dreamers close the gap a little more between being strapped to a rocket before falling back to earth and anyone who wants to just jump on a plane and explore the stars. The shuttles also helped bring the world a little closer together as many of the flights were international in crew and cargo. So to celebrate not only a part of my childhood dream to be an astronaut, here is a little on what makes Discovery so special.
Construction began in 1979 and was completed four years later. Discovery was the 3rd shuttle added to the fleet and had it’s first flight in 1981. Enterprise was the first test shuttle built followed by what would later be Challenger. Both were not space-flight certified and were first used for vibration and thermal testing. Challenger would later be converted for space-flight and become the second shuttle in the fleet. Enterprise was never converted. So the first official shuttle was Columbia, next was Challenger, and then was Discovery. Atlantis and Endeavour would be added later due to the accidents of Columbia and Challenger.
Discovery has flown to space more than any other craft, and has carried more crew (252) to orbit. Now with 39 trips to space, it has spent more than 352 days in orbit and has circled the Earth more than 5,628 times. All while speeding along at 17,400 mph. Talk about frequent flyer miles, Discovery has traveled almost 143 million miles. That is 288 round trips to the Moon or about one and a half trips to the sun!
Discovery bridged more than the gap to the stars, it also helped in showing all nations and individuals that the stars are truly one of the only limits humans have left. Discovery’s crew has also stood out with some of the major firsts for space exploration. To name a few, it had the first Russian Cosmonaut on a shuttle, first Mir rendezvous that aslo had first female shuttle pilot, oldest human to fly in space when John Glenn was part of STS-95 and the first African-American to space walk.
Discovery also had the honor of launching the Hubble Space Telescope, Ulysses spacecraft for exploring the Sun’s polar regions, and UARS (Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite) to name a few.
On its second mission, Discovery became the first spacecraft to retrieve a satellite and bring it home. Stellar spacewalks using MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit) jetpacks brought back two malfunctioning satellites. Discovery also saw the last use of the MMU jetpacks. It also holds the shuttle record for the highest altitude known for a shuttle flight 380 miles up. In 1985 it was also the only shuttle orbiter to fly four times in one year.
Earlier I said the last Discovery flight had Columbia and Challenger to help lift her wings a little higher. One of the main reasons for that is NASA’s decision to use Discovery as the “Return to Flight” shuttle after both terrible accidents of the first two shuttles. After Challenger was lost after takeoff in 1986, Discovery was the first shuttle to fly after improvements were made. Discovery was again called on to return us to space after Columbia broke up during re-entry in 2003. Again Discovery was the first to fly after improvements. Both loses were followed by years of no flights, so the “Return to Flights’ of Discovery were seen as a symbol of America’s unstoppable spirit for exploration as well as tributes to the fallen shuttle crews.
After Challenger, another first included new procedures to ensure the shuttle heat shield was in good condition for the flight home. Among them was the first “back flip” as Discovery approached the station to enable the station crew to capture HD images for later inspection.
As the sun sets for Discovery and the rest of the remaining shuttle fleet, the Mission Control Commentator’s words when Discovery cleared the launch tower on Thursday were simple but majestic. “Discovery, now making one last reach for the stars”.
(Images and Facts by NASA)
There are many more achievments for Discovery and the rest of the shuttle fleet, so visit NASA.gov for video and more that I could not add here.
It may be the last flights of the shuttle fleet, but our dreams of the stars and space are only getting started. With all the technological advancements and media outlets, the stars have never seems so much within reach.