Today, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the oldest surviving space shuttle launched into Earth orbit for the final time. Discovery began it’s 39th and final mission today, launching successfully at 4:53 p.m. EST from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Discovery‘s launch marks the beginning of NASA’s plan to decommission the space shuttle and leaves us astronomy fans asking, “What’s next?” According to NPR, “Discovery has flown more times than any other shuttle, and this is its 39th mission. Its total days in orbit add up to almost a whole year, and it has carried 194 different astronauts.” Discovery has launched 31 satellites, including the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, and was the first shuttle to resume missions after the Columbia disaster in 2003.
Discovery is the first of three final space shuttle missions before NASA’s decommissioning of the space shuttle program. Even though STS 133 (short for “Space Transportation System #133”) is the last for Discovery, it marks a first in the space flight program – Robonaut2 is now the first “dexterous humanoid robot in space” as it accompanies the six-person crew to the International Space Station. Robonaut2 is meant to be a test to show scientists and engineers how humanoid robots function in space alongside humans, both in the ISS and on spacewalks.
Discovery‘s mission will last 11 days and will land, weather permitting, at the Kennedy Space Center on March 7, 2011. This flight will be followed by the final flight of Endeavour on April 19, 2011 for STS-134. NASA has also scheduled STS-135 (originally named STS-335, and planned as a rescue mission, if needed) as the last in the space shuttle program, but as of now there is no appropriation in the budget to support a launch. Still, NASA “insists” the space shuttle Atlantis will fly its final flight as scheduled on June 28, 2011.