Space shuttle Discovery wraps up mission that went 'above and beyond'
The space shuttle Discovery left the International Space Station behind having done everything it was scheduled to do and more. It is set to land Wednesday.
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The crew spent much of the day conducting a final inspection of the orbiter's thermal-protection system – a procedure that became a regular part of shuttle operations after the Columbia disaster in 2003. That orbiter broke up on reentry after insulating foam from the external fuel tank broke free on liftoff and struck the leading edge of one of the shuttle's wings. The damage allowed searingly hot gases to destroy control systems inside the wing.Skip to next paragraph
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[Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of the shuttle that broke up in 2003.]
On Tuesday, Discovery's crew will prepare the orbiter for reentry, with touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center slated for 11:57 a.m. Wednesday morning, Eastern Standard Time.
Discovery's final mission leaves as many as two additional shuttle flights before the program ends. Endeavour, currently slated to launch no earlier than April 19, makes its final trip to the launch pad Wednesday night. NASA has scheduled a final flight for Atlantis in late June.
While much has been made of each orbiter's final trip, the impact of the shuttle program's end on the people who work with them took the spotlight Monday. When flight director Bryan Lunney's shift ended, he left the flight director's console in mission control for the last time – to a standing ovation from his team and words of appreciation from Discovery's crew.
Mr. Lunney – who joined the agency out of college in 1988, and has been involved with some 50 shuttle missions – essentially picked up where his father, Apollo flight director Glynn Lunney, left off.
Now, it's off to the private sector and aerospace companies, which have a stake both in the future of NASA's human-spaceflight program as well as the future of commercial companies vying to fly humans and cargo to the space station.
Like many involved with the shuttle program, Lunney says Discovery's curtain call is bittersweet.
The orbiters NASA operated represented "tools" that evolved with time and experience, allowing astronauts to take on longer, more complex missions – although the Challenger and Columbia disasters taught some hard lessons, he acknowledged.
Because of those lessons, "that's why Discovery today is in such great shape," he said.
When asked for his sense of the shuttle program's 30-year legacy, he said, "generations of people have evolved this vehicle to be able to do some amazing things. I think we're going to look back at it and just go: Wow! It's been unparalleled in the history of mankind what we've been able to do with that shuttle."