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The End of an Era: The Final Voyage of Space Shuttle Discovery

Posted on 12/03/2010

The 1988 return to flight launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery (Source: NASA Images)

The highly anticipated launch of space shuttle Discovery later this month will mark the beginning of an end. The United States’ era of launching manned space vehicles is almost over, or, at least, nearing a lengthy pause.  Following the final Discovery launch, only one remaining shuttle mission is planned. After that, government funding looks likely—but not definite—for one more launch.  Once the space shuttles are retired, the U.S. will relinquish its position as one of three countries with manned flight capability; only China and Russia will continue to have the capability to launch manned space vehicles.  The shuttle program kicked off a novel concept in space flight: reusable space vehicles. No longer would single-use rockets carry man and machinery into the final frontier. Instead, a craft capable of take off (albeit propelled by external fuel tanks), maneuverability in space, and re-entry and landing would revolutionize the industry. 

Dallas Morning News (Oct. 28, 1980). Source: America's Historical Newspapers

This renewed focus on longer, more manned space flight enabled new opportunities for scientific advancement in many fields. One of the research priorities has been medical experimentation. Anti-gravity provides a unique testing and development environment that can be rarely, if ever, duplicated on Earth. 

Augusta Chronicle (May 5, 1985). Source: America's Historical Newspapers

As with many ambitious endeavors, the space shuttle history has not always been trouble-free. In 1986, and again in 2003, the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia suffered the ultimate tragedies. Entire crews were lost, the shuttles destroyed. Still, man’s persistence to explore and discover persevered. Those who gave their lives in the quest for this knowledge, this exploration, are honored by the commitment to improve on our quest to move into space.   

Trenton Evening Times (February 2, 1986). Source: America's Historical Newspapers

The upcoming mission will represent another triumph for the Discovery: the 26-year-old craft will again lift our nation’s curiosity into the stars. And, yet, it will be a poignant one as well, because it will mark the final mission for this historic vehicle. The space shuttle Discovery—the first manned vehicle to return to space after both the Challenger and Columbia tragedies—holds an exceptional place in the United States’ space program. It was the Discovery that delivered the Hubble Space Telescope into space and carried John Glenn back as he became the oldest human to travel beyond the atmosphere. 


God Speed, Discovery. May you return to Earth safe and sound to take your rightful place in America’s space history.

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