Discovery's final countdown: Space shuttle launch signals NASA transition
As Discovery prepares for her last space shuttle launch, NASA's human spaceflight program shifts from space station ferry-service to missions to the moon, Mars, and beyond.
After 27 years and more than 143 million miles, the space shuttle Discovery is poised for her final countdown.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Space photos of the day: Space Shuttle Discovery
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The ship is carrying an Italian-built cargo carrier re-engineered to provide extra storage space on the International Space Station. In addition, the orbiter is lofting some 5 tons of supplies and Robonaut 2, which designers envision as an eventual humanoid helpmate for future space-station crews.
Discovery's launch marks the first of three curtain calls – one for each of the remaining vessels in the shuttle fleet – as NASA's human spaceflight program enters a period of profound transition.
NASA is handing off the responsibility of ferrying goods and US astronauts to and from the station to private launch companies.
Such missions, however, likely would be launched in the 2020s, depending on how agreeable successive administrations are to the current blueprint.
Discovery's last launch
As with the end of any long-running production, the cast and support crew behind Discovery's launch are finding this a bittersweet moment.
"She's been an amazing machine; she's done everything we've asked of her," says Michael Leinbach, the shuttle launch director.
For now, the entire team is focused on successfully completing the mission, he says.
But "landing day is going to be tough," he added during a prelaunch briefing Wednesday. "You'll see a lot of people on the runway who will probably choke up some."