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NASA Robotics Space Hardware Science

A Bittersweet Finale For Discovery Space Shuttle 205

Julie188 writes "The shuttle Discovery re-entered the Earth's atmosphere for the last time Wednesday to close out the space plane's 39th and final voyage. And so marks the beginning of the end for America's shuttle program. Everything about the last flight felt epic, from how it overcame a down-to-the-last-second problem to launch on its final mission in February, to its sunny final landing this week. As it coasted to a stop, Discovery's odometer stood at some 5,750 orbits covering nearly 150 million miles, during 39 flights spanning a full year in space — a record unrivaled in the history of manned rockets."
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A Bittersweet Finale For Discovery Space Shuttle

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  • Longer video (Score:5, Interesting)

    by amicusNYCL ( 1538833 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @02:06PM (#35432798)

    Only 2:30, but here is NASA's landing video from their Youtube channel:

    http://www.youtube.com/user/NASAtelevision#p/a/724782A8B8BE3EE5/0/Drv0SS1rCpk [youtube.com]

  • I have to give credit to NASA. Their HD real-time stream was great! I was able to put it full screen on my 23" monitor, sit back, and enjoy the whole thing!
    • by vlm ( 69642 )

      I have to give credit to NASA. Their HD real-time stream was great! I was able to put it full screen on my 23" monitor, sit back, and enjoy the whole thing!

      Note that the first orbital shuttle flight was right about the time my father brought home our first computer, a TRS-80 model III. What I do with computers has changed a bit, but the enjoyment level is about the same (maybe a little lower now). Want to see something really weird? Wikipedia classifies the -3 as a business system. I guess I should just be thankful it hasn't been deleted (yet).

  • by Thud457 ( 234763 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @02:15PM (#35432912) Homepage Journal
    yeah, just watch, the odometer'll read 750 orbits when they trade it in!
  • Bittersweet indeed (Score:5, Insightful)

    by flaming error ( 1041742 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @02:15PM (#35432920) Journal

    If only we knew what comes next.

    It seems every 4-8 years a new 20 year plan is given to NASA that may or may not have anything to do with the last 20 year plan. Between politics and NASA's own bureacracy, it seems that the US manned space program is stalled. Thank goodness we still have JPL and its hardy unmanned probes.

    While we are getting rides from Russia to install experiments from the EU and Japan, perhaps our private sector will advance enough to pick up where NASA left off. Here's to you, Burt Rutan.

    • by Cheeko ( 165493 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @02:19PM (#35432974) Homepage Journal

      JPL isn't without its issues either, but at least they accomplish stuff. My brother worked for them for 5 years until the bureaucratic mess became too much. To hear him describe it, they have a serious brain drain issue where the lure of the private sector takes a lot of their best and brightest. Its a hearty bunch that stay for the long term and manage to get past the politicking.

      • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @02:21PM (#35433014)

        To hear him describe it, they have a serious brain drain issue where the lure of the private sector takes a lot of their best and brightest.

        But I thought all government workers were spoiled, lazy, and overpaid? And there would be no consequences if we slash their salaries whenever we need to close a deficit?

        • People who want to be spoiled and lazy don't get difficult degrees in aerospace engineering, physics, etc. and go to work doing serious science work at someplace like JPL. People like that want a good work environment and rewarding work, regardless of the pay. There's lots of engineers who quit their well-paying jobs because the office politics are toxic, the work environment bad, they're tired of all their projects being shit-canned, etc.

          Yes, there's lots of spoiled, lazy, overpaid government workers, bu

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Beelzebud ( 1361137 )
            I get so tired of you pseudo intellectual libertarians constant whining about the IRS and taxes. Go live in a 3rd world country if you hate paying your damned taxes so much.
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              I don't think taxes are the issue. It's all the stupid laws and loopholes that make it so you have to hire a tax expert at $250/hr so you can avoid having to pay out the ass every April and October.
            • Because the 3rd world is the only option to paying our level of taxes. I mean, the US was a 3rd world country until we arrived at our current tax rates.

              I know of no libertarian that argues we should pay no taxes. They just don't want to fund roles that they don't believe the government should fulfill. The roles that they do think government should fulfill would keep a country safely out of the category of 3rd world.

              Perhaps you meant pseudo intellectual anarchists.
            • The "we shouldn't pay any taxes at all" group is actually a very tiny minority. Most grumbling on taxes comes about from:

              Inefficiency (when money being spent on project X greatly exceeds what it should cost)

              Waste (eg, having to spend all the budget this year to ensure it doesn't get cut next year, so things are bought and then immediately thrown away)

              Irrresponsibility/abuse (like vacations and luxury for lawmakers under the guise of official business)

              Superfluous projects (ie, government spending money to d

              • by Jeremi ( 14640 )


                All too often, the libertarian's working definition of "waste" is "any program that doesn't benefit me personally". The magic of this line of thinking is that everybody can agree that there's enormous waste in government spending.... and as long as you don't ask them to point out exactly what that waste is, they'll never notice that they're all talking about each others' sacred cows.

          • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

            The spoiled and lazy career track is the Political Science major.

            • by sqrt(2) ( 786011 )

              I resemble that remark.

              Seriously though, as a political science major, I do take exception to that. There are plenty of people in the field doing good research that widens our view of how government operates, when and how it fails, how to avoid the problems of the past, and give us new ideas and models to use in the future. Society is sufficiently complex that we need people trained specifically to write, analyze, and revise policy that implements the will of the people. It is capable of being just as rigor

          • by geekoid ( 135745 )

            No true Scottsman fallacy, eh?

            Maybe there not really that many fat lazy government workers?

        • Maybe the lure is not having to deal with all the Powerpoint happy middle managers that keep the program mired in bureaucracy. Just because 'the best and the brightest' want to leave doesn't mean there isn't a fuck-ton of 'mediocre and not so smart' left behind.
        • But I thought all government workers were spoiled, lazy, and overpaid?

          You make a good point... clearly there's an exception to every rule!

          I kid, I kid. Please don't audit me.

      • It's fun that everything you said is in the past tense...

        Sure, they were useful and did beneficial research. Before. When they still had money and cared.

    • by Leebert ( 1694 ) * on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @02:33PM (#35433174)

      Thank goodness we still have JPL and its hardy unmanned probes.

      Where's the love for the JHU APL? (Note that MESSENGER is just a few days from its Mercury orbital insertion)

      As to Discovery, it's particularly bittersweet to watch her retirement. I saw her launch firsthand as a kid in '85 (STS-51D), which had a big impact on me. A good part of the reason I'm (still*) at NASA today. Discovery was the orbiter for both return to flight missions. She launched HST.

      I also had the privilege to watch her last launch. I admit, it almost brings a tear to my eye.

      * Working at NASA was more of a right-place-right-time opportunity for me. Not leaving NASA in disgust years ago is largely due to the love of the program I have, largely instilled by that early shuttle launch.

    • I'm not sure I'll be cheering for the private sector, over NASA, anytime soon. If you think those guys wouldn't take government money, you're high, and I'd rather see that money go to NASA than some guy that will ultimately use it for self-enrichment.
    • by shadowfaxcrx ( 1736978 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @03:17PM (#35433728)

      Huh. Imagine that! Every 4-8 years NASA gets new marching orders that force it to waste the money it spent on the last marching orders by axing those projects.

      And every 4-8 years we get a new President.

      What an astonishing coincidence!

      What really needs to happen is that we need to somehow enact a law that says the President isn't in charge of NASA and can't order them to drop everything in favor of something else on a whim. The history of NASA from the shuttle onward is pretty tragic, and not because NASA or the idea of a national space agency sucks, but because idiots keep screwing with their budget. The shuttle itself was supposed to be a proof of concept - - Let's show that we can build a space plane with this prototype and then go build a production model that's cheaper and works better. But budget restraints canned that.

      Then they got new budgets and were going to try for a good space plane again, and then W got into office and decided to go to Mars, so NASA had to drop everything and start working on the Mars trip. Then Obama took office and killed the Mars trip - not that I entirely fault Obama for doing that since the Mars trip was unworkable as ordered, but the point still stands. NASA has become a huge waste of taxpayer money not because of NASA mismanagement, but because of mismanagement of NASA. It really does need some independence, because we've progressed beyond the point where viable programs can be ordered and delivered in 8 years, so all we have is NASA working for at most 8 years on something and then being told to throw everything from that program away because the new President isn't interested in it.

      • The law you want already exists. Congress is in charge of NASA.

        But Congress can barely manage their own cafeteria.

        Laws often originate with either a lobbyist or POTUS.

    • US Government's Plan for Nasa - 2011 to 2031:
      -Gradually close down the US space program and subcontract all spaceflight to private sector companies
      -Sell off the shuttles so we can finally pay off our pawn loan and get that sweet guitar back
      -Lose edge on space-based achievements and discoveries to other more honest nations that don't have need to over-fund stealing oil from the middle east
      -Divert all space funding to an illegitimate war for control of a doomed source of fuel
      -Gradually divert all science, mat

    • It seems every 4-8 years a new 20 year plan is given to NASA that may or may not have anything to do with the last 20 year plan. Between politics and NASA's own bureacracy, it seems that the US manned space program is stalled. Thank goodness we still have JPL and its hardy unmanned probes.

      Gee, good thing then that the new plan is smaller missions involving the development of specific technologies and capabilities, rather than a 20 year plan requiring single-purpose development, so that when the next cycle comes, even if the new guy changes plans, we still have what we already built.

      BTW, Burt Rutan is awesome, but it's Elon Musk who is going to be providing the rides first.

  • by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @02:16PM (#35432946) Homepage Journal

    As someone who was there watching the launch in person, it was definitely a nail biter. Forty seconds left in the launch window, though I suppose they could have waited a day and gone up then.

    It almost got delayed a day anyway. There's a minimum separation time between when one ship leaves ISS and another one docks, and if they had held fast to that schedule, it would have been delayed until Friday because of the late departure of... I think it was a Soyuz mission. They decided to override that and go on Thursday anyway. Either way, there presumably was an alternate launch window already planned for Friday.

    The best part was how many people reacted to the original mission schedule in the same way. NASA's banners said that it would be up for 10 days and spend 363 days in orbit. Immediately, my reaction was, "Wait... you're within two days of being up there for a year, and you're not going to do it?" Well, they extended the mission by two days.

    And just to anthropomorphize the shuttle a bit, I don't think general purpose computer 5 was ready to go to a museum. It failed to shut off. I particularly liked the controller's comment when he said that they'd be sure not to use that switch on the next flight. Hilarious.

    Wow. Just... wow.

  • I just thought I should point that out. The picture of me aboard the shuttle totally added to the epicness of it all.

    (And yes, I printed out my flight certificate already, though no one in my office was nearly as impressed with it as I.)

  • Alas (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SnarfQuest ( 469614 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @02:19PM (#35432978)

    I have been feeling that the shuttle program was a big mistake for NASA. It's had too many problems, never flew as often as it was supposed to, and couldn't get out of low orbit, and has been shut down too many times, and cost more than it should have per launch. It might have been ok if they could have flown monthly as was originally planned, but it never even approached that ideal.

    What would have happened if they dropped the shuttle program early on, and did anything different for manned flight. The shuttle program is known more for its problems than for its successes. It never grabbed much public attention, and became more of a "another shuttle launched? when did that happen?". It didn't have a plan to evolve, so we have been stuck with the same technology for these long years. A non-reusable program would, at least, give us more chances to evolve the design.

    • Two tragic accidents, yes. But a mistake? I'd call it pretty remarkable for our first partially-reusable spacecraft. It did things nothing else could pull of, like bringing back satellites. Hopefully, the next generation will figure out how to do it with a totally and *legitimately* reusable system.

      • Did the shuttle, indeed, ever return a satellite? I don't recall that it ever did - or what the point of that would be. Mind you, I do recall that being one of the bullet points in the sales brochure.
        • It did capture several satellites, Hubble being one of them. I'm not sure if it ever pulled one into its bay, shut the doors, and came home though.

          • Of course it captured Hubble (several times - after an extra day and a half boosting to a higher orbit - yay lower LEO) - the question was - did it RETURN any satellites?
            • I don't think it ever returned with one. It also captured intelset VI for repairs, and released it again.

        • by 0123456 ( 636235 )

          Did the shuttle, indeed, ever return a satellite?

          At least two, I believe. From what I remember they were launched on a shuttle but the upper stages didn't fire, so they were recovered on a later flight and then launched again by expendable rockets?

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by icebrain ( 944107 )

            Yes. Plus, it also picked up the LDEF (Long-Duration Exposure Facility) launched by a previous mission and returned it as well (on a separate mission).

      • So what? What use is there in bringing back satellites? That's an utterly stupid requirement. If a satellite is bad, then let it burn up in the atmosphere, and build and launch another one on a Titan rocket. It's safer and cheaper than trying to salvage a bad one. Why should people risk their lives trying to salvage bad satellites when it's easy to just build new ones? What's more, the Shuttle can't even reach many satellites (such as ones in GEO).

        • by blair1q ( 305137 )

          Some satellites cost a couple of billion dollars to build and deploy. Spending a couple of hundred million to retrieve and refurbish them, then a couple hundred million to put them back into orbit, is a bargain compared to building a new one.

          As for GEO, we need only make a GEO-capable shuttle.

          I really don't get why people get hung up on $/kg when the major expense of most projects is in design and inventing and testing and building of manufacturing and support facilities. But in a lot of vehicles, the siz

        • Re:Alas (Score:4, Interesting)

          by vlm ( 69642 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @03:05PM (#35433576)

          So what? What use is there in bringing back satellites? That's an utterly stupid requirement

          You have to realize it was a cold war requirement to F with the soviets low altitude photorecon satellites. Back then they launched with actual photographic film, you know, like light sensitive celluloid or whatever. So the threat that we could scoop them up:

          1) Made them launch higher, thus lower res, less payload = less film.

          2) Made them threaten to put a little self destruct mechanism in the satellites, making them waste payload mass (and volume, I suppose)

          Another idea was we'd deploy military sats, and if they didn't work, rather than leaving them up there for the soviets to mess with, or even worse, having them land on soviet territory, we'd just pick em up and take em home.

          The last idea was, of course, being all things to all people all the time, some doofus promised we'd have 100 launches per year, so if we're up there on a .mil mission anyway every 3 days or whatever, why not stick to high res chemical photography for our own sats? Kind of like a mini-orbital unmanned space station.

          So there were very solid cold war reasons to bring back sats.

          You have to realize, all the design work was done in the early 70s, forty years ago. Very few electronic products have forty year runs.

    • The whole thing was a bad idea, and it was all driven by a stupid military requirement to be able to bring back satellites from space. If it weren't for that requirement, they could have done something just like the Russians: a small capsule for people (Soyuz), and a big disposable pod for cargo (Progress). The total costs of this type of system are much lower than the Shuttle. There is absolutely NO reason to ever bring large cargo back from orbit (unless maybe you've recovered an alien artifact!). If

      • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

        by blair1q ( 305137 )

        The Soviets copied our space shuttle, and put it into orbit. But Buran [wikipedia.org] sucked, the Soviet space program is dog-slow, and the fall of the Soviet Union intervened, so they mothballed it after the one (unmanned) flight and fell back on Soyuz [wikipedia.org].

        That's the only reason the manned space program is still based on capsules. If the Buran program had a clue nobody would know what a Soyuz was today. And the Russians are thinking of redoing Buran from scratch [spacedaily.com].

        If they do, in a few years you may be back here wondering wh

  • by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @02:27PM (#35433100)
    If it hadn't been for all their schizophrenic dipshit specifications (polar orbit launches from Vandenburg, etc.) the Shuttle might have been designed to live up to the hype, instead of the camel-by-committee it turned out to be. As it is, we're retiring a 27 year-old vehicle which spent 365 days on orbit. The "space pickup truck" flew 39 missions - that's not even close to two a year. Still, a decent ship we learned a lot from. Maybe the commercial people will learn to stick to a single mission criteria envelope.
    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      Not 2 a year per shuttle, two shuttles a year.

      • I probably should have written that better. Discovery flew 39 missions in 27 years, which is less than 2 per year. A little short of the two week turnaround promised.
        • by blair1q ( 305137 )

          The 2 week turnaround was a little aggressive, but it's not the reason each shuttle didn't fly more often. Lack of missions and the existence of the other shuttles made the rapid turnaround unnecessary. Although the fact that the 2-week number was bollocks from the start is one of the reasons there are so many shuttles.

    • Just to expand the above Vandenburg/polar info, it was a crucial decision in the Shuttle design. If there was a problem a single orbit after a launch from Florida, the Earth has turned and it could land in the continental US. Vandenberg and polar meant it was out in the Pacific and needed to glide. This meant wings, not something envisaged for the lifting-body designs. These totally changed the design ethos; wings are weighty and a structural weakpoint. They turned the spacebus into an armoured car.
  • who occupy the White House and Congress. Who are more concerned with staying in power and therefor buying off friends, family, and supporters, with our money instead of keeping America great. America has become their second priority behind themselves. Where we have such a convoluted tax system that the IRS's budget is two thirds of NASA's.

    While I was not a fan of the shuttle program for many years it is the image people most associate with the American space program. They were big, bold, and beautiful, compared to simple rockets. Each launch was impressive. Unfortunately tragedy and money being directed at buying off people for votes will keep us from getting back to the good days of NASA. Sure we still fly the occasional probe and such but they don't inspire me at least, not like seeing men do something up "there".

  • 150 million miles

    Hopefully NASA can roll it back a few million before putting it up for sale. What's the KBB on a used space shuttle?

  • We have lost our ambitions for spaceflight. Drones and unmanned craft will be a hollow replacement for the human experience.
    • by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @03:07PM (#35433598)

      We have lost our ambitions for spaceflight.

      That seems like a bizarre claim when there's probably more commercial interest in spaceflight today than ever before in the history of the human race. Dozens of groups are building suborbital rockets, SpaceX has built and flown two new orbital launchers with new engines for less than the cost of NASA putting a dummy upper stage on top of a shuttle SRB, and at least some of those groups will come up with innovative ways of reducing the cost of spaceflight as a result.

    • by sconeu ( 64226 )

      John F. Kennedy:

      We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

      America today:

      We choose not to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things. Because they are not easy, they are hard.

    • manned spaceflight is a waste of resources, much more cost effective to do things remotely. Nothing of our current "primate-in-a-can" approach to space stations proves much other than that weightlessness is VERY unhealthy. All the experiments can be done much more cheaply remotely. We should develop propulsion and probe tech until we have breakthroughs such as controlled fusion that will allow us to make serious colonies and spacecraft that are inhabitable indefinitely.
  • So the only reason the shuttle remained was to get to the station, and the only reason the station remained was to have a place for the shuttle to go.

    Almost everything else got cut for budget reasons, etc.

    So, now that the shuttle is all done, that means the station is all done and will be deorbited rather soon, correct?

  • There has to be a simple reason why they don't leave it up there, but I don't know what it is. It costs $$$ for every kilo that goes into orbit. It's an airtight space full of equipment and other useful things. It has engines and a bit of leftover fuel that could be used for station keeping.

    What aren't the shuttles just made a permanent part of the station and source of parts and the crew just sent down via MIR or something?

    • by 0123456 ( 636235 )

      It's an airtight space full of equipment and other useful things.

      It's far from airtight and is only designed to operate in space for a couple of weeks (which is why they didn't go to a great deal of trouble to make it airtight). Cooling and power would be problematice and the interior space is small compared to a space station module.

      A number of people have suggested this and there's no good reason to do it and lots of good reasons not to do it.

      • by garyrich ( 30652 )

        So you'd use it as somewhat leaky storage and a source of spares and raw materials. Still seems way more valuable up there than sitting in a museum.

        • by 0123456 ( 636235 )

          So you'd use it as somewhat leaky storage and a source of spares and raw materials.

          There's little commonality between shuttle parts and ISS parts, no-one is going to be melting down the shuttle's aluminum for raw materials to build new space station parts, and you'd need to bring more supplies into space to keep the atmosphere from leaking out (plus more fuel to raise the orbit since you'd have another hundred tons of mass). It's simply a lose-lose proposition.

    • What aren't the shuttles just made a permanent part of the station and source of parts and the crew just sent down via MIR or something?

      The Mir didn't make a very good re-entry vehicle.

  • Depressing. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @04:21PM (#35434664)

    My three year old is fanatical about space, planets, the moon, astronauts, everything. How am I supposed to explain to him that our "great" country doesn't do any of that stuff any more? What sort of answer can I give him that doesn't sound a complete fucking cop-out? I have yet to think of one.

God helps them that themselves. -- Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanac"