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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz