Earth to Discovery!

On September 11, residents of the state of California thought they had experienced an earthquake. In reality, it was a dual sonic boom of the space shuttle Discovery returning to Earth that caused the rattling of windows in homes.

The space shuttle’s landing on Edwards Air Force Base was the result of a diverted landing plan that had the Kennedy Space Centre as its original landing area. This is not unusual for a space shuttle mission, but bad weather prevented the shuttle from landing at Kennedy, so Edwards was the next best choice.

This mission makes Discovery one of the oldest space faring vehicles as far as space shuttles are concerned. This mission, titled STS-128, has dealt with a variety of matters, mostly part of the International Space Station. The latest mission lasted for fourteen days and covered more than five million miles in space.

Discovery’s mission delivered two refrigerator-sized science racks to the International Space Station. These racks house sophisticated experimental equipment that will be used to research better material development on earth. They are also used for fluid physics research, to understand behavior of fluids in micro gravity. These could lead to improved designs for fuel tanks, water systems and other fluid-based systems. These experiments are vital to the International Space Station which continues to rely heavily on Nasa to re-supply and build it through its space shuttles.

Discovery also delivered a sleeping compartment, air purification and a treadmill to the space station. The mission included three spacewalks that replaced experiments outside the European Space Agency's Columbus laboratory and an empty ammonia storage tank. Ammonia is used a coolant because of its liquid nature in the sub zero temperatures of space.

All in all, Discovery dropped off more than eight tons of supplies, life support gear and scientific equipment at the space station, leaving the space outpost better equipped to house crews of six astronauts. That figure alone goes to show you the importance of shuttle missions to the space station.

The mission was led by Commander Rick Sturckow who was joined on the mission by Pilot Kevin Ford, mission specialists Pat Forrester, Jose Hernandez, Danny Olivas and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang. Struckow served as pilot on the first International Space Station assembly mission in 1998, and again in 2001.

Sturckow’s first command was on the STS-117 mission. Nasa astronaut Nicole Stott flew to the complex aboard Discovery to begin a nearly three-month mission as a station resident, replacing Tim Kopra, who returned home on Discovery.

A special crew member also returned during this mission. Disney’s toy astronaut Buzz Lightyear, from the Toy story animated movies, initially flew to the station in May 2008 on shuttle Discovery's STS-124 mission. He has now officially served as the longest tenured ‘crew member’ in space. While on the station, Buzz supported Nasa's education outreach by creating a series of online educational outreach programmes designed aseptically for children and young adults.

So far, Discovery has flown 35 of those flights, completed 4,888 orbits, and flown 117,433,618 miles in total, as of June 2008. Discovery is the orbiter fleet leader, having flown more flights than any other orbiter in the fleet, including four in 1985 alone. This mission also marked the 25th anniversary of its first launch on August 30, 1984.

And although it has just returned, plans for the next flight sometime in March 2010 are already underway. Discovery will be hoisted atop a Boeing 747 jumbo jet and flown back to Kennedy Space Station in Florida, where it will be recalibrated and fixed up for the 2010 mission.

Though the future of the International Space Station remains uncertain, Nasa is determined to continue missions to the station for as long as the space shuttle fleet remains in usage. The Space Shuttle Programme itself will be terminated in late 2010 or early 2011. This marks an era of space shuttle flights which has seen disasters such as the Challenger and Columbia, and as well as great feats such as the launch of the Space Telescope Hubble or the building of the International Space Station.

Even though the space shuttle will fold its wings and retire, Nasa will continue to expand its space programme, which includes a return mission to the moon and a planned mission to Mars.

First steps of both missions have started to take form in the proposed Orion spacecraft which is the replacement for the space shuttle and will come into service sometime in 2015.

Discovery’s journey might be coming to an end, but mankind’s journey of discovery is just about to begin.

No comments: