Discovery’s last flight among the stars
At 4:53:24 p.m. Thursday, Discovery, the world's most traveled spaceship, blasted off into orbit for its final mission. The oldest of NASA's three surviving space shuttles, Discovery is the first to be decommissioned this year. This was Discovery's 39th launch and the 133rd shuttle mission overall. There are only two remaining missions before the 30 year old shuttle program comes to an end, one by Atlantis and then one by Endeavour.
Discovery already has 230 million km to its credit, beginning with its first flight in 1984. By the time this mission ends, the shuttle will have tacked on another 7.2 million km. Having spent a total of 363 days in space and circled Earth 5,800 times when it returns on March 7, Discovery already has a spot waiting for it at the Smithsonian Institute.
Manned by 6 veteran astronauts, Discovery is set to return in 11 days after a stop at the International Space Station. Besides delivering a small chamber full of supplies and parts, Discovery's last major contribution to space is an experimental humanoid robot dubbed Robonaut 2 or R2 for short.
With 38 computer processors and fully functional arms and hands, R2 is the centerpiece of a major advancement in the evolution of humans and robots working together in space. For the better part of the next year the robot will mostly be undergoing tests to make sure the trip to the space station caused it no trouble. The testing period should give the astronauts aboard the space station a chance to get used to large, heavy and imposing Robonaut 2.
The robot, which is fitted with velocity and speed controls to help make sure it doesn't injure an astronaut, will have some time to prove itself — both in terms of its abilities and to ensure it works safely.
Already running three-and-a-half months behind schedule because of cracks in the external tank, this historic launch almost didn't take place as a last-minute Air Force computer glitch threatened to derail the launch. Trouble with an Air Force range safety system computer put the launch in doubt as the countdown ticked into its final minutes. With time running out, the glitch was resolved and the countdown resumed, with Discovery blasting off just three seconds before the end of the available launch window.
NASA is currently under a presidential order to retire the shuttle fleet this summer and let private companies take over trips to orbit and to focus on getting astronauts to asteroids and Mars. While this will not be the end of our involvement in space it will put a hamper on how easily we can go until our new fleet is constructed.
But why is this important to technology you might ask? Mainly because it is almost impossible to name all the inventions and technological advances that the Great Space race has presented us the consumer. If it wasn’t for the need to figure out how to literally cram the ability to compute trajectories and maintain water and air qualities in space we would not have the portable technology that we all use and covet today.
Besides who also couldn’t live with out Velcro and freeze dried ice cream.