Discovery launch heralds last stages of shuttle era
The first of NASA's 3 shuttles facing retirement, was at the launch pad for the last time and prepared for liftoff on Wednesday.
Mon, Nov 01 2010 at 3:05 PM
FINAL FLIGHT: The U.S. is ending the shuttle program in 2011 to put money toward developing spacecraft that can travel deeper into space, with the goal of landing astronauts on an asteroid, and eventually Mars. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - Space shuttle Discovery, the first of NASA's three shuttles facing retirement, was at the launch pad for the last time and prepared for liftoff on Wednesday to transport a storage room to the International Space Station.
The United States is ending the shuttle program in 2011 to put money toward developing spacecraft that can travel deeper into space, with the goal of landing astronauts on an asteroid, and eventually Mars — places beyond where the shuttles can fly.
"In an ideal world, before you sell your current car, you want to make sure you've got the next one to buy," said Mike Moses, who oversees the shuttle program at the Kennedy Space Center.
"But realities are that NASA is on a fixed budget, like most American families, and without a big infusion of cash, we can only do a couple of things at a time. To get another human spaceflight program started, we have to shut one down."
NASA has one more shuttle mission on the books, a February flight of shuttle Endeavour to deliver the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector to the space station.
The agency also hopes to squeeze in another flight of shuttle Atlantis next summer on a final cargo run to the station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that has been under construction 220 miles above Earth since 1998.
After that, the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program grows murky.
Congress agreed to a $19 billion-a-year spending plan for the agency that includes new programs to develop heavy-lift rockets and to invest in promising technologies, but the projects are on hold since the funds have not been authorized.
After bitter debate, Congress also agreed to an Obama administration initiative for NASA to buy launch services for astronauts commercially. However, the industry does not yet exist.
Once the shuttles are retired, only Russia will have the capability of flying people to the station, a service that costs the United States $51 million per person.
Washington hopes to bolster commercial transportation options with a $200 million program for companies to develop passenger space vehicles and technologies, such as escape systems for rocket launches that go awry.
NASA has hired start-up Space Exploration Technologies — a privately owned company run by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk — and Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. to carry cargo to the station.
Russia, Europe and Japan also operate station resupply ships.
With the shuttle workforce already half the size it was 2-1/2 years ago and great uncertainty about the future, NASA's main concern is to finish out the program without another accident.
In 29 years of flying and 132 missions, NASA has had two fatal accidents, claiming 14 lives.
"The team wants to preserve the legacy of the shuttle program and end on a really high note," said shuttle program manager John Shannon.
Discovery is set to liftoff at 3:52 p.m. EDT on Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center and arrive at the station on Friday.
The launch was delayed two days to fix a leak in the system the shuttle uses to maneuver once it is in space.
The shuttle is also carrying spare parts and a prototype humanoid robot named Robonaut 2 that will live in the U.S. lab. The robot, developed in partnerships with General Motors was designed to assist station crew members with maintenance tasks.
The mission, the 133rd in the shuttle program, is expected to last 11 days, with the possibility of an additional day being added.
The crew is being led by Steven Lindsey and includes pilot Eric Boe, flight engineer Timothy Kopra, and astronauts Alvin Drew, Michael Barratt and Nicole Stott.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Cynthia Osterman)
Copyright 2010 Reuters US Online Report Science News
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