Space Shuttle Discovery launches on final journey

02/25/11 Zack Baddorf
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NASA launched the Space Shuttle Discovery for the last time yesterday afternoon. The orbiter went on its first mission in 1984, 27 years ago. WMNF's Zack Baddorf was at Kennedy Space Center, just a few miles away from the launch pad, and brings us this report.

On Discovery's 39th and final voyage into space, the shuttle is heading toward the International Space Station, where it’ll deliver a storage module. The crew of six will also bring with them a robot named R2. It’s the first human-like robot in space and will become a permanent resident of the International Space Station. R2 will eventually help astronauts with boring or dangerous tasks.

NASA spokesperson Bob Jacobs says the machine doesn’t have some of the limitations that astronauts do.

“Don’t have to worry about oxygen. Don’t have to worry about radiation exposure. And see what kind of tasks that it can do that perhaps the astronauts can’t.

About 250 human crew members have gone into space aboard Discovery, including the first female shuttle commander Eileen Collins, the first African American spacewalker Bernard Harris, Jr., and the oldest person to travel in space, John Glenn. Discovery also launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990.

However, yesterday’s launch is the third to last of the space shuttle program.

After the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003 that left all seven crew members dead, an investigation board recommended that the space shuttle fleet be retired and that NASA move on, to a new generation of space vehicles.

NASA’s Bob Jacobs explains.

“The only way to get onto those next steps is to retire the shuttle fleet. It’s a very capable vehicle but it does have limitations and it does have challenges in maintaining it safely. We’ve been able to do that for the past 30 years for the most part but you know it’s time to move onto the next generation and it’s time to retire it.”

Jacobs says NASA simply doesn’t have the resources to maintain the space shuttle program while also developing new launch vehicles.

President Barack Obama plans to freeze NASA’s budget for the next five years, at about $19 billion a year. He’s also proposed to shift the money around, with a bigger focus on climate change research.

Florida Representative Bill Posey opposes these changes, saying they cede America’s leadership in space to China and Russia.

Again, Bob Jacobs.

“I think suggesting that we’re somehow ceding leadership in space exploration to another nation, I think doesn’t examine the whole picture of what the agency does.”

Jacobs says NASA will adjust its priorities and missions according to whatever budget is finally passed. While the space shuttle program is ending, he insists NASA is doing “a lot of exciting things.”

“There’s this misconception that human space flight is coming to an end or that somehow the space program is ending. And that’s simply not the case. If you look at the flight manifest, NASA’s missions are ramping up.”

After Discovery completes its voyage, there are two more shuttle launches. The Endeavor blasts off in April and the Atlantis will head into space in June.

Discovery returns to Earth on March 7 after traveling more than 4.5 million miles at about 17,000 miles per hour. In the shuttle’s lifespan, it’ll have gone a total of about 150 million miles and have traveled around the Earth about 5,600 times over its lifespan. Space Shuttle Discovery will be retired to the Smithsonian Museum in D.C.

More Discovery photos by WMNF volunteer Sean Birdsell

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Flying bricks...

They need to retire those things... we can do better!!! The Shuttle has about the same "lift to drag ratio" as the X-15... and that brick is more than 50 years old.

Gonna miss them...

Shuttles have been flying most of my life. It's gonna be weird when they are only in museums.