Bittersweet Finale for the Last Mission of Discovery

John Raoux/Associated Press

The space shuttle

March 9, 2011

A Bittersweet Finale for the Last Mission of Discovery

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The shuttle Discovery braved the hellish fire of re-entry for the last time Wednesday and glided back to Earth to close out the space plane’s 39th and final voyage, an emotion-charged milestone marking the beginning of the end for America’s shuttle program.       
Dropping through a partly cloudy sky, the commander, Steven W. Lindsey, and Col. Eric A. Boe of the Air Force guided Discovery through a sweeping left overhead turn, lined up on Runway 15 and floated to a picture-perfect touchdown at 11:57 a.m. Eastern time to wrap up an extended 13-day space station assembly mission.       
As it coasted to a stop under a brilliant noon sun, Discovery’s odometer stood at some 5,750 orbits covering nearly 150 million miles during 39 flights spanning a full year in space — a record unrivaled in the history of manned rockets.       
“And Houston, Discovery, for the final time, wheels stopped,” Mr. Lindsey radioed flight controllers in Houston.       
“Discovery, Houston, great job by you and your crew,” replied Charles Hobaugh, an astronaut in mission control. “That was a great landing in tough conditions, and it was an awesome docked mission you all had.”       
Mr. Lindsey and Colonel Boe were joined aboard Discovery by Capt. Benjamin Alvin Drew Jr. of the Air Force; Nicole P. Stott; Michael R. Barratt, a physician-astronaut; and Capt. Stephen G. Bowen of the Navy.       
As support crews swarmed onto the broad runway, engineers in the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building were busy preparing the shuttle Endeavour for rollout. The target date for Endeavour’s 25th and final flight is April 19.       
NASA’s lone remaining orbiter, the Atlantis, is scheduled for liftoff June 28 on the shuttle program’s 135th flight, the final chapter in a post-Apollo initiative that produced what is arguably the most complex, capable and costly manned rockets ever built.       
”We’re seeing a program come to a close here, and to see these shuttles, these beautiful, magnificent flying machines, end their service life is obviously a little bit sad for us,” said Dr. Barratt.       
“But it is about time — they’ve lived a very long time, they’ve had a fabulous success record,” he added. “We look forward to seeing them retire with dignity and bringing on the next line of spaceships.”       
What sort of spaceship might ultimately replace the shuttle is an open question, and it is not yet clear how NASA will fare in the ongoing budget debate.       
But between Atlantis’ landing this summer and the debut of whatever vehicle replaces it — several years from now at best — the only way for American astronauts to reach orbit will be to hitch rides aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft at $55 million a seat.       
That is a bitter pill for the thousands of men and women who have worked on the shuttle fleet over the past three decades, who now face layoffs and the prospect of seeing Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis — the world’s most sophisticated spacecraft — turned into museum displays.       
“We won’t do anything nearly as complex with another vehicle for a very long time,” Captain Drew said. “Five or 10 years from now, they’re going to look back and say ‘How did we ever build a vehicle that could do all these things?’ ”       

 Discovery on Wednesday, touching down for the last time.

 

Copyright. 2011. The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved

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