Last flight of Discovery

24 02 2011

Update: February 24th 2011. Discovery final launches into the sky for the final flight – about time! I’ve left the article as it was originally written – I think it still works.

On Nov. 3rd (hopefully!) the Space Shuttle Discovery will launch on it’s final mission.  Discovery first flew when I was just 13 years old – the summer of 1984. That’s the year of the Los Angeles Olympics, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Ronald Regan was in full speed at the White House.

26 years later Discovery shows it age, and well I guess I do too. But what is the legacy of the shuttle program? Setting aside the heart-wrenching Challenger and Columbia disasters, are we going to look back on the era of the shuttle with enthusiasm or criticism?

Speaking as an astronomer, I have a special attachment to the shuttle. It’s hard to believe that the servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope could have been achieved by any other vehicle. The astronauts needed to be up there a long time as well as carrying large pieces of equipment. Despite the main mirror disaster, being able to upgrade the instruments on the HST has made it the most successful telescope in history.

And the most expensive. I’ve heard estimates that if you add the cost of all the shuttle missions to fix or add new instruments to the HST, the total cost of the HST program is north of 10 billion dollars. Ouch! Shuttle flights are phenomenally expensive at 1.3 billion dollars each!

And that is the most common criticism aimed at the shuttle. The orbiters themselves are outrageously expensive too. But a large part of that expense helps make the shuttle close to being the most reliable launcher available. Reliability costs money. Even the fabled Russian Soyuz launcher is no more reliable than the shuttle when it comes to launching satellites.

For the time being reuseable vehicles are off the space exploration table. While the US has not figured out what its “heavy launcher” will be, a new generation of commercial launchers such as Falcon-9 will see us go the smaller, faster, cheaper route for small to mid-range satellites.

Provided there is real competition in the launcher arena this could be a good thing. But I’m betting there won’t be. Don’t get me wrong, the whole Ares program was a massive miscalculation, but real innovation in the private sector requires money to enable real competition. I just don’t see there being enough cash to support multiple R&D efforts. Maybe it will take competition with the Chinese.

Whatever we wind up thinking about the shuttle program, Discovery holds some records that won’t be broken for some time. It’s flown the most number of missions (38), accumulated almost a year in space (351 days), and orbited the Earth 5628 times. Those are some pretty amazing stats.

After Discovery flies its final mission, Endeavour and Atlantis will fly the final two missions of the shuttle program. June 28th is the planned launch date for the final shuttle mission (STS-135) to be flown by Atlantis.

I really want to see it.

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