Shuttle Discovery Lands; End of Shuttle Program Begins

Shuttle Discovery Lands; End of Shuttle Program Begins

Space Shuttle Discovery made her final landing at Kennedy Space Center at 11:57 EST today, March 9, 2011. It is a date sure to remembered in space history circles as the first of the remaining space shuttle orbiters is officially retired.

Five spaceflight-worthy orbiters were built. Two, Challenger and Columbia, were destroyed in accidents in 1986 and 2003 respectivelly, killing all aboard in each case. Atlantis and Endeavour will make their final flights in the months ahead. The last flight of Endeavour is STS-134, scheduled for launch on April 19. Atlantis will fly the so-called “Launch on Need” mission, STS-135, and NASA plans to launch it as long as Congress does not cut the agency’s FY2011 funding so severely that it is financially impossible to do so. That mission is currently scheduled for June 28, bringing the space shuttle program to a close.

NASA plans to rely on commercial companies to build the next human spaceflight system to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and hopes those systems may be available in the 2015-2016 time frame. NASA is purchasing crew transportation services from Russia during the “gap” between the end of shuttle and the availability of whatever comes next.

One other orbiter was built — Enterprise. It was the first, but was designed only for test flights within the atmosphere, not for flights into space. It is on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Udvaar-Hazy faciility near Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C. NASA is currently deciding where Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour will go. The decision is expected to be announced next month. April 12 is the 30th anniversary of the first flight of the space shuttle (Columbia) as well as the 50th anniversary of the flight of the first man into space (Yuri Gagarin from the Soviet Union).

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