Yesterday, Feb 24, the space shuttle Discovery lifted off on her last flight. This mission is going to the International Space Station (ISS) to drop off a new Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM). This is a big new room that will be used on the ISS as a place to store spare parts, experiments and whatever else the astronauts on board need to stash somewhere. The PMM is actually the former Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) named Leonardo. The MPLM has been used in the past to take supplies up to the station, and to bring experiments, broken parts and trash back to earth in the space shuttle. This PMM is the last habitable section to be added to the US side of the ISS. The Russians however are planning to launch several modules to expand the ISS over the coming years.
Discovery is also carrying along a cool new robot, called Robonaut 2, or R2 (Seriously guys, R2? I guess it’s harmless publicity, but still). It’s a humanoid torso robot that is supposed to be able to perform construction tasks and work with repetitive experiments to space the astronaut crew some boring or hard or dangerous labour. Initially R2 will work inside the ISS with the astronauts, but at some later point the plan is to add some lower appendages and to use R2 outside the station. There are even ground version of robonaut that use wheels that could be used on the moon or mars (Someday. I’ll talk about that in some other posts.)
This is Discovery’s 39th and last flight. She’s been flying since 1984 as the third space-worthy shuttle to be built and, with Challenger and Columbia having been lost, is the oldest shuttle in the fleet. Discovery flew a number of notable missions over the years, including the launch of the Hubble space telescope, she was the first shuttle to visit the russian Mir space station, John Glenn flew on her as the oldest person ever in space, and she was the shuttle chosen to make the first flight after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters.
All the space shuttles (Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour) are being retired after 1 or two more mission. Endeavour will fly the next mission, STS-134 sometime this spring or summer. She will carry a cool new experiment that will mount on the outside of the ISS called AMS-02 that will act like the detector of a particle accelerator. Instead of using a huge machine to accelerate particles, AMS-02 will use detect the particles already zooming through space from supernova and other cool space stuff.
Atlantis may or may not fly one more time. Congress told NASA they can fly it, and NASA wants to fly it. Problem is Congress didn’t feel like giving NASA any more money to actually pay for the mission. So, we’ll have to see. But yeah, that would be it for the old space shuttles. I’ll write more in the future about what’s next, but my crystal ball is still pretty cloudy.
And back to the launch, here you can find some cool videos and photos, and photos, and photos. And if you want to follow the mission as it happens, check out this site with live video of the mission, and a blog with updates. This site is a bit harder to follow, but sometimes has information you won’t find anywhere else. And for the really hard-core, the mission flight plan and press kit (careful, that last one is a ~15MB pdf) are available.
Let me know if you want any more information, or any other feedback. Thanks!