Last mission for Space Shuttle Discovery

Article published on Feb. 10, 2011
Article published on Feb. 10, 2011
by Ilias Lappas photo: Kennedy Space Center Having watched the space shuttle Discovery completing its almost 6 hour journey from Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A, the place from which is scheduled to start its last space mission in 24th of February, the only thing that comes to my mind is to share with you some words for that engineering marvel, as a tribute to a successful effort
to approach and overpass human limits.

The space shuttle is a ‘reusable’ space transportation system which consists of three major components, the reusable Orbiter Vehicle (i.e. the spacecraft, which contains the crew and the payload), the huge orange-colored External Tank (contains liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for the engines of the spacecraft) and the two reusable Solid Rocket Boosters.

About two minutes after liftoff, explosive bolts are fired to release the Solid Rocket Boosters, which then parachute into the ocean, to be retrieved by ships for refurbishment and reuse. The spacecraft and the External Tank continue to ascend, powered by the three main engines. Upon reaching the velocity necessary for low earth orbit (7.8 Km/s) the main engines are shut down and the External Tank is then jettisoned downward to burn up in the atmosphere.

The system is launched vertically, like a conventional rocket and the spacecraft lands like a ‘conventional’ aircraft. The spacecraft’s so-called conventional landing exhibits some peculiarities, in reality the spacecraft lands like a giant glider, (since no conventional propulsive power is available without fuels!) thus it needs extremely lengthy runways. For instance, there are just two runways in USA where the space shuttle can land, one off course in Kennedy Space Center in Florida and one in Edwards Air Force Base in California.

After landing, the space shuttle undergoes an extensive maintenance program to be released in an airworthy condition for the next mission. In case of landing at Edwards Air Force Base, a special ferry-flight takes place for delivering the space shuttle back in Kennedy Space Center, like the following!

____________2_.png photo: Kennedy Space Center

Space shuttle Discovery is finishing its space career boasting more space missions than any other space shuttle. Discovery was launched for the first time in 30th of August 1984 and till today had logged 38 space missions.

It was the third in the row space shuttle built after Columbia and Challenger. Remarkably, it was the space shuttle that flew both ‘Return to Flight’ missions (1988, 2005) after the Challenger and Columbia mishaps. Construction of Discovery started in August of 1979 and completed with its successful delivery in Kennedy Space Center in November of 1983.

A great variety of payloads had been carried onboard Discovery, like commercial satellites, structural parts of International Space Station and scientific equipment, with Hubble space telescope still being the most famous, during the mission STS-31 in April of 1990, furthermore Discovery was used for both Hubble servicing missions (STS-82, February of 1997, STS-103, December of 1999).

A lot of expertise and lessons learned that were gained during the development and testing of Columbia and Challenger were used for optimizing the design of the third space shuttle. Discovery, like any other space shuttle, underwent numerous modifications throughout its operational life. Most recently, in 2002, an extensive program of 99 upgrades and 88 additional special inspections was accomplished by the technicians and engineers of Kennedy Space Center to preserve its airworthiness.

It is not my intention to go into technicalities and specifications for Discovery, hence I am going to conclude just by staring at the following picture, taken during the last trip of Discovery from Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A.

____________3_.png photo: Kennedy Space Center

It is another cold night in Kennedy Space Center and the space shuttle Discovery, in its dazzling look, says goodbye for the last time to Vehicle Assembly Building, while heads slowly to Launch Pad 39A for its last space mission. Next to Discovery, a crowd of employees, their friends and people from the greater area of the Space Center grasp their last chance to watch Discovery.

Some of them have brought there their children, you can easily see at the left corner of the picture, a child falling asleep! Everybody is there to say goodbye, simply because in Kennedy Space Center and the surrounding area, not only Discovery but the entire space shuttle fleet are considered as members of their family, it is their dream that came through, it is the vision that led up their lives…

It is why in launching day at Kennedy Space Center nobody can hide his anxiety, it is why after countdown time everybody’s look is stuck in shuttle’s dramatic shape that fights against the Gravity Law, the look of the same persons that use to say that NASA’s Boeing 747 (picture above) that carries the space shuttle back from Edwards just ‘brings baby home’…

Cafebabel Greece takes this as an opportunity firstly to wish to the crew of Discovery an enjoyable mission and a safe landing back in earth, secondly to honor the pioneering team that kept the space shuttle dream alive..