It’s the beginning of the end for NASA’s shuttle fleet. Tonight at 4:50pm EST, Space Shuttle Discovery will slip the surly bonds of Earth for the 39th and final time. The oldest of the space agency’s three operational orbiters will be making its last trip; a delivery run for the International Space Station. Needless to say, this makes us sad.
Because updates and advancements in shuttle technology have been bogged down by budget constraints, shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour’s next missions will be their last as well. American astronauts will soon have to hitch rides into orbit on Russian crafts or through private space programs (we’re lookin’ at you, Rebel Billionaire).
It’s easy to view this as the end of a wasteful government program, but has anything encapsulated the excitement, bravado, danger and possibility of American ambition like the Space Shuttle? Watch Discovery, all 171,000 pounds of it, thrust itself into the Florida sky this evening and try not to smile.
When it touches back down early next month, Discovery will begin the long, depressing process of becoming a museum piece. The shuttle that once flung the Hubble Telescope into orbit will literally be bolted down to Earth; America’s biggest and most expensive parakeet will have its wings clipped.
Soon, NASA will have to reignite plans for manned space travel — we’re messing up down here on Earth so bad that it’ll be nice (and necessary) to take the trip. Until then, we’ll just have to sit on our hands and wait.
One bright spot from Discovery’s last voyage is a piece of its cargo: Dexterous humanoid robot-astronaut Robonaut 2. That’s right, cyborgs in space.