By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

The US space program had good news today (February 24, 2011). NASA successfully launched Discovery for its final flight (STS-133), which is a trip to the International Space Station (ISS). A great video of the launch from NASA can be seen here, which shows the take and the separation of the solid fuel boosters when the shuttle is 29 miles from NASA at a height of 24 miles. Wow! I wish that our Piper Arrow had that kind of acceleration and ceiling…

Image credit: NASA TV

 

Photo credit: NASA

The crew of Discovery is shown to the right, with NASA astronauts Steve Lindsey (center right) and Eric Boe (center left), commander and pilot, respectively; along with astronauts (from the left) Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt and Steve Bowen, all mission specialists.names listed below (thank you for the picture, NASA).

A successful launch is always good news, but this is a bitter sweet moment for fans of the space program. The Space Shuttle era is coming to a close in 2011. After today, depending on funding from Congress, there will only be one or two more Shuttle flights this year, then the US Shuttle fleet will be retired.

For a real treat, watch this video.

The Hubble Space Telescope

I’ve followed nearly every launch since STS-1, and my favorites involve the Hubble Space Telescope. The initial plans called for launching the Hubble in 1986, however the destruction of the Challenger delayed the launch until 1990, when Shuttle Discovery carried and launched it on mission STS-31.

There were problems with the Hubble mirror, so another visit was necessary to effect repairs. Space Shuttle Endeavour’s STS- 61 mission was to repair the Hubble, and it was a huge success. The astronauts successfully retrieved, repaired, and redeployed the Hubble, and the before and after images from the Hubble are remarkable. Since the repair, the Hubble has contributed a great deal to new images of the planets and stars in the sky.

There have been four other missions to repair or upgrade the Hubble to prolong it’s effective use exploring the wonders of the universe. The other Hubble shuttle missions were:

  • Shuttle Discovery – STS-82 in Feb, 1997
  • Shuttle Discovery – STS-103 in Dec, 1999
  • Shuttle Columbia – STS-109 in March, 2002
  • Shuttle Atlantis – STS-125 in May, 2009

The Hubble will continue to provide valuable images of the skies for years to come, however it too will be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope, expected to be launched in 2014.

This is not the end of US flight, as there are private firms like Space X and Virgin Galactic that are working on vehicles capable of delivering people and supplies to the ISS in low earth orbit. There are other space agencies like the the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) that have sent missions to the ISS. The Russian agency will be the primary agency providing Soyez capsules to deliver and retrieve people in the near future.

It will be awhile before the next generation of US space crafts are ready, so it will be a time to watch the efforts of others – in the private sector as well as other nations. Hopefully we will live to see missions to establish bases on our moon and on Mars, which will be as awesome as our first missions to the moon in the 1960s and 70s.

UPDATE (Monday, 3/7/2011)

Shuttle Discovery decoupled from the ISS this morning at 6AM CST and is headed back to earth. The Shuttle will orbit earth in the vicinity of the ISS for the next 2 days, then re-enter the atmosphere and land on Wednesday. This marks the last time Discovery will visit the ISS.

UPDATE (Wednesday, 3/9/2011)

Shuttle Discovery begins mission orbit number 202, which is her final earth orbit, at 9:01AM CST. The 2 minute de-orbit burn began while the Discovery was over India, traveling at Mach 25. The landing was at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 10:57AM CST today, which was the last of the 39 missions flown in this Shuttle. It is great this Shuttle did so well so many times, yet this was the last time that ship will fly and that is sad indeed.

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