The final countdown and the end of an era

The last journey of 'Discovery' represents the grounding of Nasa's ambitions

Five men, one woman, and a gold-faced robot with a passing resemblance to the Star Wars character C-3PO went through their final countdown last night, as the world's oldest and most-travelled space shuttle blasted into orbit round the Earth for one last time.

After 150 million miles and a combined total of almost 50 weeks of boldly going, the 26-year-old Discovery lifted off from Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida at 4.50pm local time to begin its 39th and final mission.

The start of the 11-day trip to the International Space Station was accompanied by all the usual bells and whistles of a major Nasa launch, from a flag-waving crowd of 40,000 to endless press conferences from the organisation's senior boffins.

But amid the pageantry, there was a hint of sadness: Discovery's last hurrah doesn't just mark the retirement of a craft known to US astronauts as "the champion of the fleet", it also hastens the demise of the shuttle as a means of extra-terrestrial transportation.

The era-defining brand of spacecraft – which was given the go-ahead by Richard Nixon, entered space under Ronald Reagan and outlasted the Cold Wa – is scheduled to be shuffled off into retirement later this year, with the loss of 7,000 jobs.

It is the victim of swingeing budget cuts at Nasa, combined with doubts about safety which stretch back to the Challenger disaster of 1986, and became seriously pressing after 1 February 2003, when Columbia disintegrated during re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere.

Mike Leinbach, the launch director, admitted before lift-off yesterday that it will be "tough" to see Discovery go. "You'll see a lot of people on the runway who will probably choke up some," he said. "It's the end of a 30-year programme we've grown to love and appreciate and feel like we're doing something special for the country and, really, the world."

Once Discovery returns, Nasa will prepare for April's scheduled final journey of Endeavour, the shuttle which is due to include in its crew Mark Kelly, the 47-year-old husband of the wounded Tucson Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Then, Nasa will formally end the era of the space shuttle on 28 June, when Atlantis begins a 12-day mission to the International Space Station. After that, America will find itself in the embarrassing position of having to cadge lifts for astronauts in spacecraft owned by Russia. Nasa's long-term plans, such as they are, involve private companies providing orbital transport. Given such uncertainty, the demise of Discovery represents a particularly sad moment. It has always been the most loved and trusted of Nasa's fleet. It was chosen for Nasa's symbolically important first missions after the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

This week's final flight has been arranged to ferry 1.75 tons of supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station, most notably a humanoid robot named "Robonaut 2", which has a gold face and stands a little over 3ft tall.

The robot will work alongside human inhabitants of the station. At first, it will carry out mundane tasks, such as cleaning. But engineers hope it will eventually take over more dangerous and complex duties, including space walks.

In one of the more unlikely scientific experiments to be carried out during the trip, researchers from the University of Guelph in Canada will tickle the feet of Discovery's six crew members before take-off and immediately after landing to identify which skin receptors are most influenced by weightlessness.

The mission was originally scheduled to begin in September, but was delayed by problems with the fuel tank and the withdrawal of a crew member who crashed his bicycle.

Though originally conceived in the 1970s as an economical alternative to rockets (they could complete multiple missions, while each rocket could only fly once) they proved far less reliable, and more expensive than expected. When the shuttle programme was launched, its architects envisioned that American astronauts would fly a mission a week, launching satellites and defence systems, and building vast space stations.

In the event, Nasa never managed more than nine or 10 shuttle flights a year. Thousands of highly trained engineers were needed to maintain each craft in the fleet, at a huge expense. Then there were the two disasters, in which 14 people died.

Discovery's future probably now lies as a museum piece: negotiations are under way for it to be donated to the Smithsonian. "There is nothing better than a real artefact, and Discovery has been an icon of human space flight for 30 years," said Valerie Neal, curator of the institution's National Air & Space Museum, who spoke to The Independent from the launch site yesterday.

Up, up and away no more

August 1984 After four years in the making, Discovery is launched on its maiden voyage to deploy three communications satellites.

April 1990 The Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most important astronomical tools ever made, is carried and launched into orbit by Discovery.

February 1994 Discovery becomes the first American space shuttle to host a Russian cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev.

February 1995 The shuttle becomes the first American spacecraft to dock with the Russian space station Mir. This mission also sees Eileen Collins become the first female space shuttle pilot.

February 2011 After performing 38 voyages, travelling 230 million kilometres and orbiting the earth 5,628 times, Discovery launches for the last time.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss